The man accused of intentionally driving into a crowd and killing six people during a Wisconsin Christmas parade has declared himself a “sovereign citizen” and is representing himself, almost immediately derailing his trial.
The sovereign citizen idea is an unwieldy and pseudo-legal notion that essentially argues that a person is outside of their country's laws.
Darrell Brooks, 39, faces six first-degree murder charges and 77 additional charges in relation to the incident at the Christmas parade in Waukesha last November. Six people were killed and 62 other people were injured when the SUV Brooks was driving plowed through the crowd, prosecutors say. Police said it looked as if the driver was weaving the vehicle to inflict as much damage as possible.
Among those killed was an 8-year-old boy who was marching in the parade with his baseball team and multiple members of a dance troop made up of grandmothers.
Police arrested Brooks after he allegedly left his SUV and tried to escape into a house.
Last week, Brooks made headlines by clashing frequently with Judge Jennifer Dorow. He challenged basic legal notions and annoyed the judge to the point where she adjourned the hearing. He laughed when his accused crimes were read against him and repeatedly said he did “not understand the nature of the charges” against him. He also fired his court-appointed attorneys and demanded to be able to represent himself.
“You have demonstrated through this hearing that you don’t have a basic understanding of some of the things that are going on,” said Dorow in response.
Despite her obvious misgivings, the judge granted Brooks the right to defend himself but is already threatening to revoke it. On Monday, as reported by local news outlet Fox9, Brooks filed a handwritten document demanding the court “verify his identity” and that he’s a “United States citizen.” He requested “certified copies of her oath,” asked to be given more time to go through his documents, and went on several rants about the Constitution.
He made so many interruptions that he was removed from the court and placed in a room where he could watch the proceedings without interrupting. The jury selection process will continue this week.
Dr. Christine Sarteschi, an extremism scholar who has long researched sovereign citizens, said Brooks appears to be an extreme case.
"They don't believe in the court system, they don't believe in the government. They don't think they have jurisdiction, and so they challenge them, like he's doing," Sarteschi told VICE News. "(Brooks) seems worse in some ways than a lot of sovereign citizens.”
Sarteschi said it appears the judge is trying to avoid a mistrial.
“They're trying to eliminate that possibility because I've seen plenty of sovereign cases where somebody is allowed to represent themselves and then when they lose, which is typically the case, they go back and they try to appeal it on the basis that they should not have been allowed to represent themselves,” she said.
In June Brooks filed an insanity defense, but he withdrew that in early September. His mother had said previously that Brooks suffers from mental health issues, and she recently asked the judge not to allow him to defend himself.
The attack has been exploited by right-wing and far-right influencers, mainly due to Brooks' history of making social media posts that are defamatory against Jewish and white people. His posts, and the fact Brooks is Black, led many in the far-right ecosystem to declare the attack an anti-white hate crime.
Police have not given a dedicated motivation to Brooks' alleged attack. They do believe he was driving away from a domestic disturbance shortly before the parade. Brooks has a history of domestic violence, including a domestic abuse charge for allegedly hitting his girlfriend with the same vehicle he’s alleged to have done the attack with just 21 days before the mass murder.
While the notion of a sovereign citizen may seem preposterous the idea has been around for decades but exploded during the pandemic. Now, influencers within the movement go around the country and hold seminars for hundreds of people. Sarteschi couldn't tell if Brooks was a longtime adherent of the pseudo-legal movement.
“I didn't get the impression that he had a lot of knowledge, but he does seem to be very disruptive at every chance he gets,” she said.
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