Wednesday marks the beginning of the trial of Brooke Skylar Richardson, a young Ohio woman who in 2017, when she was 18, gave birth to a baby she says was stillborn, buried its remains in her parents’ backyard, and was subsequently charged with murder. Prosecutors are arguing the infant was born alive, and that Richardson killed it and then buried the remains; her attorneys maintains that Richardson experienced a stillbirth and panicked when she gave birth. If Richardson is found guilty, she could face up to life in prison.
Richardson was about to start her senior year of high school when she became pregnant, but was seemingly unaware of the pregnancy until she saw a gynecologist to obtain birth control shortly before the end of the school year. Her family had noticed her gaining weight, but she had long suffered from an eating disorder, so they say they chose not to comment on what they saw as a sign of her improving health.
After Richardson saw a doctor, she was informed that she was 32 weeks pregnant. But, as the Washington Post noted in its reporting on the trial, Richardson was actually 37 to 39 weeks pregnant at the time.
She was reportedly terrified. During the jury selection process, Warren County Assistant Prosecutor Julie Kraft told the court, “Upon learning she was pregnant, Brooke burst into tears and told her doctor that she could not have this child and that she could not tell anyone about being pregnant. And Brooke told no one. She did not tell her parents, her friends or the baby’s father.”
Richardson gave birth 11 days later, alone and in the middle of the night in the bathroom of her family home. She then buried the baby’s remains in a corner of her backyard. At one point, in a follow-up visit to her gynecologist, she told her doctor that she had given birth; her doctor then reported the baby’s death to the county coroner, which put it on the radar of the local police.
Richardson told the police that the baby had been stillborn. But a doctor and forensic anthropologist hired by county prosecutors examined its remains and said they looked to be “charred.” Partly based on this assessment that the baby had been burned before it was buried, prosecutors subsequently charged Richardson with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, gross abuse of a corpse, tampering with evidence, and child endangerment. Richardson, now 20 years old, has pled not guilty.
But Elizabeth Murray, the doctor who examined the remains, later recanted her assessment that the bones had been burned, though, as People reported, “In an email exchange with a forensic pathologist, Dr. Elizabeth Murray wrote that ‘whether the bones were burned or not, that baby was still dead, had unexplained skull fractures, and was buried the backyard. I don’t understand why the burning takes it up such a notch.’”
Richardson’s attorneys have seized on this detail, pointing out during Tuesday’s jury selection that this mistake played a key role in prosecutors’ decision to indict her, and that police detectives had attempted to get her to confess by focusing on the burned remains.
Per the Post:
Holding her hands at the table in an interrogation room, “as if they were her friends,” [Richardson’s attorney Charles] Rittgers said, the police told her it would be better if she said she was trying to cremate the body. Eventually, Rittgers said, after denying she burned the baby 17 times, and after describing the baby being born dead 29 times, she seemed to relent, saying she did try to cremate her. Rittgers said they “broke her down.”
“What happens when that doctor who made this horrible mistake changes her mind and tells everyone I was wrong, the bones weren’t burnt?” Rittgers said. “What happened? The police didn’t hit a reset button. The prosecutors didn’t hit a reset button. … They disregard all truth that does not fit into their story. And that’s why we’re here today.”
“This case was about a massive rush to judgment,” Rittgers said on Tuesday. He added, “She thinks she has 10 weeks to tell her mom and listen to her mother’s angst about being pregnant, tell her boyfriend, who didn’t know she was pregnant. She thinks she can go to prom and graduate from high school before her mother gives her angst about being pregnant. She delivers 11 days later.” Prosecutors, meanwhile, will argue that Richardson, who was about to go to college, killed her baby because she was, in the words of the Daily Beast, “preoccupied with maintaining her image:”
In announcing the charges two years ago, the prosecution focused on painting the Richardson family as “obsessed with external appearances,” and their daughter as being willing to do anything to keep them up. They are expected to use evidence of her eating disorder, her time on the cheerleading squad and track team, and her participation in the National Honor Society—evidence Richardson’s defense has used to paint her as a rule-abiding overachiever—as proof that she was preoccupied with maintaining her image.
As Warren County Prosecutor David P. Fornshell said in 2017, “She’s a cute recent high school graduate, she was a cheerleader, described as a ‘good girl’ by her attorney.” Fornshell added, “If members of the community were to find out that the Richardson girl was pregnant and perhaps gave birth, and even if, after giving birth, gave that child up for adoption, that was something that was simply not going to be accepted in that household, at least by Skylar and her mother.”
Richardson’s mother Kim has disputed this claim in previous interviews. “If she had come to me and said she was pregnant, I would have said, ‘OK, not exactly in the cards, but we will deal with it,’” she said to the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2018. “No one should be prosecuted for having stillborn babies,” Kim added.
The trial is expected to last for two to three weeks.