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Jury reaches verdict in murder trial of Ohio cheerleader accused of killing, burying newborn baby

An Ohio jury returned a verdict on Thursday afternoon in connection with a former cheerleader who buried her newborn in her backyard.

Brooke Skylar Richardson, 20, was on trial for aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, and abuse of a corpse in connection with the 2017 death of her newborn baby, Annabelle.

The jury found Richardson not guilty on all charges except for abuse of a corpse. Sentencing for the conviction is scheduled for Friday morning.

Richardson was an 18-year-old high school senior when she gave birth inside a bathroom at her parents’ Carlisle home. She didn’t tell her family or friends she was pregnant and told no one when she gave birth. Afterward, she buried the newborn between two trees in her family’s backyard.

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While prosecutors argued that Richardson gave birth to a live infant, then killed the baby, defense attorneys argued that the baby was stillborn.

Defense attorneys Charles M. Rittgers, left, and Charles H. Rittgers, right, comfort Brooke “Skylar” Richardson as the verdict is read in her trial at Warren County Common Pleas Court Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in Lebanon, Ohio. The Warren County jury deliberated for four hours before acquitting Richardson of aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment charges. She was found guilty of corpse abuse. (Nick Graham/The Journal-News via AP, Pool)

The Trial

Last week, Assistant Warren County Prosecutor Steven Knippen told the jury that Richardson searched online for “how to get rid of a baby” while pregnant. He also sent a text message to her mother, relieved her “belly is back,” shortly after she gave birth.

“I am literally speechless with how happy I am my belly is back OMG,” Richardson allegedly texted, referring to weight loss.

Defense attorney Charles M. Rittgers argued that Richardson did only one online search while looking for self-abortion information. She claimed she never did further research after the initial search.

“Those texts that we now see after May 7 … were Skylar focusing on the only thing she thought she could control at the time, which was her body,” Rittgers retorted.

Knippen argued that the only person who knew Richardson was pregnant was Dr. Andrew at Hilltop OBGYN, and only after he discovered her pregnancy during an appointment her mother set up for her to get birth control pills.

When Dr. Andrew told Richardson she was pregnant, she begged and pleaded with him to not tell her parents.

“She kept repeating she can’t have this baby and couldn’t tell anyone she was pregnant,” Knippen said. “She never scheduled that follow-up appointment. Staff began trying to reach out to her, trying to get her back in….. Brooke never returned those calls.”

Rittgers retorted that Richardson was told she had around 10 more weeks into the pregnancy and thought she had additional time for prenatal care. However, the doctor’s estimate was apparently off. She gave birth to a full-term baby 11 days later.

Richardson’s ex-boyfriend, Trey Johnson, 21, took the stand and said the defendant never told him she was pregnant, never told him she gave birth and never told him the baby died. He testified he didn’t know anything about the situation until a detective approached after the infant died and asked him for a buccal swab.

Kippen said Richardson’s relationship with Johnson was short-lived. They dated around a month or so before she reportedly broke up with him, blocked him on social media, and began dating another boy, Brandon.

The buccal swab confirmed Johnson was the father.

Interrogations

During the first interrogation in connection with the case, Richardson repeatedly said she couldn’t detect her baby’s heartbeat after giving birth. She said after trying to care for her for around an hour, she buried the baby is a makeshift memorial in her backyard. She did admit she used a shovel to dig a grave for baby Annabelle.

The second interview Richardson took place on July 20, 2017, when Detective Brandy Carter with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office former Warren County Lt. John Faine quizzed Richardson on whether she burned her baby. The burning allegations were brought up after forensic anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth Murray initially said baby Annabelle showed signs of charred bones.

The doctor later recanted her assessment after reviewing the infant’s bones again, but the second interview took place before Murray changed her opinion.

Richardson: “I promise on anything; I didn’t burn her. My dad has lots of bonfires but I didn’t burn her.”

Carter: “Well, there’s some, some charring and stuff on some of her bones, so….”

Richardson: “I didn’t burn her.”

Carter: “Are you sure?”

Skylar: “I swear on anything.”

Although Richardson initially denied the allegations, after close to an hour of questioning, she changed her story and admitted she tried to burn the infant. The defense argued that the detectives led her into a false confession.


Carter: “Did you put the lighter on like the feet or something?”

Richardson: “Yeah.”

Carter: “I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but, like, feet, legs? I mean, you didn’t, you didn’t put it on her face.”

Richardson: “No.”

Carter: “So…”

Faine: “And her, um, the towel was not on then, right? Or I just, I know the other day you said it wasn’t when you put her…”

Richardson: “No.”

Faine: “…in the ground, but so the towel was not on. I just want to make sure that’s still…OK.”

Carter: “And then did it ever, did the remains ever catch fire? Like, was there an actual fire?”

Richardson: “I guess…like a little brush.”

Carter: “OK. Like, some weeds?”

Richardson: “Flowers.”

Carter: “Okay.”

Faine: “Was it dark? OK.”

Richardson: “I think it was, like, in the middle of the night.”

Faine: “OK, and are you….are you telling us the truth?  Did you light this fire in the same hole where, where you buried her?”

Richardson: “Yeah.”

Additional statements Richardson made during the second interrogation led to her arrest. The defense said the detectives pressured Richardson into making false statements after they interrogated until she said what they wanted to hear.

Richardson was read her rights and informed she didn’t have to speak without an attorney; she then admitted that her daughter may have been born alive. She had previously insisted the baby was stillborn and had no heartbeat upon birth.

“I didn’t look at first,” Richardson said. “I saw her arms (moving) a little bit.”

“I think you know you are not going home,” Carter said.

Personality Disorder

Richardson’s defense attorneys hired Dr. Stuart Bassman to examine her after she was slapped with numerous charges.

Bassman testified Wednesday that Richardson has “dependent personality disorder,” meaning she’s terrified of rejection and was easily manipulated by the two detectives who questioned her about how her newborn died.

The defense argued that she was forced into a false confession. Bassman’s assessment backed up those claims; he said Richardson could have told the detectives what they wanted to hear in order to please them.

“It is my opinion that Skylar Richardson suffers from a mental disorder that predisposes her to compliance with people in authority,” Bassman said. “I read in the transcript about her being force-fed about her setting fire to a baby, her being force-fed about hearing a sound, even though she adamantly said ‘no.’ That, in one sense, was remarkable for Skylar to say ‘no,’ but unfortunately, she was worn down.”

Annabelle’s Death

On May 5, 2017, hours after going to prom with her boyfriend, Brandon, Richardson Brooke gave birth alone in the night.

With no witnesses, there was no way to determine if Richardson told the truth about her daughter being stillborn. A coroner couldn’t determine a cause of death. Yet, prosecutors insisted that Richardson killed and buried her baby in an attempt to move on with her life without the responsibilities of caring for an infant.

Rittgers disagreed.

“This case was about a massive rush to judgment,” Rittgers told the jury on Wednesday, arguing that Richardson never killed her child since the child was stillborn.

Knippen argued that Richardson did nothing at all that would suggest she tried to care for the infant.

“Upon going into labor, she didn’t call 911, she didn’t try to go to the hospital, she didn’t run downstairs to her mother and father,” Knippen argued. “She didn’t wake up her brother who was just across the hall.”

“Even when confronted with the birthing process itself, [she was] determined to keep her secret……Finally, when the moment of truth was upon her, she took her newborn’s life and disposed of that body in the yard behind their home.”

Authorities eventually found out about the baby when Richardson allegedly confessed after a doctor at the Hilltop OBGYN pressed her on the baby’s whereabouts.

The prosecution also alleged that Richardson tried to burn the infant after forensic anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth Murray previously indicated that the baby’s bones looked “charred.” Murray later recanted her assessment after noticing the bones looked “so different from my July visit to my August visit.”

Rittgers argued that although Dr. Murray told authorities she changed her assessment, police and the prosecution largely ignored her.

“What happens when that doctor who made this horrible mistake changes her mind and tells everyone I was wrong, the bones weren’t burnt? 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.”

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[Feature Photo: Brooke Skylar Richardson via Albert Cesare/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool]