A woke DA whose office freed the man accused of carrying out the Waukesha parade massacre has blamed a rookie prosecutor and a computer error for the suspect being freed on low bail after a prior alleged hit-and-run.
District Attorney John Chisholm, speaking out Thursday for the first time since the Nov. 21 tragedy, blamed a rookie prosecutor in his office for freeing suspected mass-murderer Darrell Brooks. He didn’t name her, but she was previously identified as Michelle Grasso.
Chisholm said Grasso, who set the $1,000 bond Brooks was freed on two weeks prior to the parade massacre, had looked at his most recently posted bail of $500 and decided to double it.
He claimed she didn’t have risk management computer data available to her that could have kept Brooks behind bars.
‘You had a young (assistant district attorney) trying to do the very best she could under really difficult circumstances and she made a mistake,’ Chisholm said during a Milwaukee County Board Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Thursday.
The district attorney has been scrutinized over the low hit-skip bail amount since Brooks was arrested and charged in the parade incident.
‘That is a decision on its face … that I believe was inappropriately low given the context of what we knew about the defendant,’ Chisholm said.
‘That’s human error. It set in motion a chain of events that resulted in a tragedy. Again, I’m not trying to lessen our responsibility for that, but that’s it.’
Chisholm noted that Grasso did not have access to the defendant’s pretrial risk assessment that looks at several factors, including prior convictions, when she made the decision to set Brooks’ bail because it had not yet been uploaded into the system, CNN reported.
The DA, who has a history of trying to reduce incarceration and the number of suspects freed on cash bail said he was angry and ‘extraordinarily saddened by the circumstances that have impacted so many people’ in Milwaukee County and reiterated that higher cash bail should have been recommended for Brooks. Grasso’s supervisor, Carole Manchester, has also been slammed over the low bail amount.
‘I put the finger on myself and that’s my obligation, that’s my responsibility,’ Chisholm said, adding that the risk assessment system was in place when Brooks was released.
‘There was a public safety assessment that was done that characterized this situation as a high-risk situation. Our default position in this case because of the laws in Wisconsin is that we recommend higher amounts of cash,’ he said, explaining the protocol that ‘should have been followed.’
Brooks, 39, faces six counts of first-degree intentional homicide after he allegedly drove his Ford Escape into a parade in downtown Waukesha on Nov. 21, killing six and injuring more than 60.
Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper has also said additional charges are likely. No possible motive has been given.
Court records show Brooks was charged with endangerment in Milwaukee County in July 2020 after he allegedly fired his gun at his nephew.
He was set to stand trial in February but Chisholm’s office had to push the proceeding back as it struggled with a backlog of cases due to pandemic-induced courtroom closures.
Since prosecutors couldn’t provide him with a speedy trial, they reduced his bail from $7,500 to $500. He posted that in March.
On Nov. 5, weeks before the parade, he was charged with endangerment again, this time for allegedly running over the mother of his child with his SUV.
Brooks was assessed as a high risk to reoffend, but the prosecutor who handled his initial appearance still sought the $1,000 cash bail. He posted it on Nov. 19.
Chisholm’s office has taken heat for setting bail the low bail, with critics saying he essentially enabled Brooks to attack the parade.
Chisholm and the county’s chief judge, Mary Triggiano, also tried painting a picture of a Milwaukee County court system that has been limping along since the pandemic struck.
Triggiano noted that the county is dealing with a backlog of 1,600 felony cases and 3,100 misdemeanor cases. Chisholm said the jail has a capacity of 920 inmates and is currently housing about 890, including 175 awaiting trial in homicide cases and 100 awaiting trial for first-degree sexual assault alone.
‘In this particular case, the ADA didn’t make a decision just in a vacuum with lots and lots of time to assess it,’ Chisholm said.
‘It doesn’t excuse it, but it puts it into context when you’re dealing with high volume triage, trying to sort what the most serious offense is, just trying to get the case in the system and move on to the next one, sometimes errors are going to occur.’
He added: ‘I want to make it clear that there are explanations for what happened. There are no excuses.’
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said at a news conference Thursday that his administration is helping Chisholm investigate what happened.
‘I caution people not to jump to conclusions, but there is one conclusion that is obvious: that (Brooks) should not have been out,’ Evers said. ‘But we are looking forward to the conclusion to the investigation.’
Chisholm’s press conference comes one week after the Milwaukee County Judicial Court Commissioner was slammed for approving Brooks’ $1,000 bond.
Court documents revealed that Commissioner Cedric Cornwall approved the low bond for Brooks during his arraignment for the alleged hit-and-run, despite the fact that he’s been bailed twice this year and has a lengthy criminal history stretching back to 1999.
Cornwall, who has served as commissioner since 2005, has a history of low bonds, Fox News reported.
On the same day he set the $1,000 bond for Brooks, he also set bail at $500 for a man accused of strangulation, battery and domestic violence. The day before he set bail at $1,000 for a woman charged with three felonies, including child abuse.
In 2006, the commissioner set bail at $100,00 for a foreign exchange student accused of a sex crime. Cornwall didn’t require the man to surrender his passport and he fled to China where he was later arrested on and unrelated charged and extradited back to the United States.
Similarly, Chisholm is known for his push to end cash bail, saying it’s not fair to poor defendants.
He wants to implement a new system in which only violent offenders are jailed until trial. That’s left him walking a fine line between angry residents who hold him at least partly responsible for the carnage at the parade and progressives looking to reduce incarceration rates.
The district attorney is also being criticized for a comment he made to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2007, arguing the state’s risk assessment system could not ‘perfectly predict’ who might commit violence.
‘Is there going to be an individual I divert, or I put into a treatment program, who’s going to go out and kill somebody? You bet,’ he said at the time.
He also argued in favor of programs that reduce recidivism, such as alternatives to incarceration.
In Wisconsin, defendants are screened with a pretrial risk assessment that looks at several factors, including their prior convictions, to evaluate the risk of them failing to appear in court or their likelihood to commit another crime.
Judges and court commissioners are then given this risk score, along with recommendations from the defense and prosecution, to aid in setting bond and release conditions.
According to the New York Times, Brooks would have rated ‘six out of six and flagged as a high risk for violence’ on the assessment.
‘This was not the product of criminal justice reform or bail reform efforts, which have rightfully questioned how we use pretrial and post-conviction incarceration,’ Craig Mastantuono, a Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer, argued last week.
He called Brooks’ release ‘a mistake’ that occurred ‘despite, not because of, the current bail and risk assessment system in place.’
Vera Institute President Nicholas Turner hailed Chisholm’s efforts in the 2015 New Yorker piece.
He said: ‘For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences. But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time.
‘Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era. Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.’
Meanwhile, Brooks in an interview with Fox News from the Waukesha County Jail said Wednesday that he feels like he’s being ‘demonized’ over the incident.
‘I just feel like I’m being monster – demonized,’ Brooks said, offering no details about a possible motive for the attack.
According to a criminal complaint, Brooks drove his SUV into the parade in Waukesha on Nov. 21. Witnesses said he was swerving and appeared to be intentionally trying to hit people. He was arrested minutes later as he stood on the porch of a nearby house asking the homeowner to help him call a ride.
Police said he had fled the scene of a domestic disturbance when he turned into the parade, although officers were not pursuing him at the time.
His mother, Dawn Woods, released a letter Wednesday offering the family’s condolences to the victims.
She said her son has long suffered from mental health issues and after he became an adult he lacked the insurance and finances to continue his medication and counseling, leading him to commit crimes.
‘Mental illness is real and the system is broken it can and must be fixed NOW, not next year or with a new legislation NOW. So many like Darrell that have fallen through the cracks because of a broken system that no one cared to address, can get the help they so desperately need,’ Woods wrote in the letter, first obtained by WDJT-TV.