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‘It was not a live birth’: Jurors speak out after Ohio cheerleader found not guilty of killing newborn

Gary Lamb is “stressed out” after sitting in the jury box for eight days during the murder trial against Brooke Skylar Richardson, a former Ohio high school cheerleader who was acquitted last week of killing her newborn daughter.

Lamb told the Journal-News that he hadn’t heard about the case before being called for jury duty and went in with no background information or knowledge, despite nationwide attention on the case for two years before the trial began.

“It was very exhausting to take in all of that information, retain it and make a decision. It really was mentally exhausting,” Lamb told the outlet.

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As CrimeOnline previously reported, 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.

On Thursday, a jury found Richardson not guilty on all charges except for abuse of a corpse.

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.

While prosecutors argued that Richardson gave birth to a live infant, then killed the baby, defense attorneys argued that the baby was stillborn. Prosecutors ultimately could not prove to the jury that Richardson intentionally harmed her child.

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)

Lamb told the Journal-News that after listening to all the facts in the case, he felt that the prosecution “severely overcharged” Richardson.

“You can’t prosecute someone on your own opinion,” Lamb said. “You have to have the facts. It would have been different if [prosecutors presented] better evidence.”

Another juror, Nancy Grawe, told the outlet she “felt good” about the decisions the jury made.

“There was no proof at all, and the prosecutors did not prove their case. I had a difficult time as the prosecutors insisted on the (baby) burning theory. They had no proof. It was based on a false premise, and they knew it.”

Grawe was referring to prosecutors alleging that Richardson attempted to burn her newborn with a lighter before burying her. The allegation came after forensic anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth Murray initially said baby Annabelle showed signs of charred bones. Murray later recanted and said the bones looked different from the first time she analyzed them.

“We did not feel the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Grawe added. “We were all in agreement about that.”

Lamb added that their decision to find Richardson not guilty of the aggravated murder charge came after expert testimony from a pathologist who said there was no way to determine if she had a live birth.

“We didn’t deliberate long on the (aggravated) murder charge, and we could not convict on (some of) the other charges because it was not a live birth,” Lamb said.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Mark Levaughn testified during the trial that the cause and manner of Annabelle’s death was undetermined.

Levaughn said that he had reviewed documents and examined the baby’s remains before reaching his decision. He also testified that the baby’s bones showed no evidence of burning and no signs of violent injury.

“ [There is] absolutely no identifiable evidence of live birth,” Levaughn stated.

Brooke Skylar Richardson, right, talks to her attorney Charles M. Rittgers after her sentencing hearing, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Lebanon, Ohio. Richardson, acquitted the day before of killing her newborn but convicted of corpse abuse, was sentenced to three years’ probation, was sentenced to three years’ probation. (Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool)

The Trial

During the first week of the trial, Assistant Warren County Prosecutor Steven Knippen told the jury that Richardson searched online for “how to get rid of a baby” while pregnant. She 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 Richardson 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 with 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 Murray’s initial assessment.

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 during the second week of the trial 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, 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.

Rittgers also argued that although Dr. Murray told authorities she changed her assessment on the baby’s bones, 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.”

Defense attorney Charles M. Rittgers presents evidence on the screen during the trial for Brooke “Skylar” Richardson in the Warren County Common Pleas Court Tuesday, September 10, 2019. The 20-year-old is accused of killing and burying her baby in the backyard of her Carlisle home. Richardson was charged with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, gross abuse of a corpse, tampering with evidence and child endangering in the death of her newborn infant. The judge dismissed the tampering with evidence charge Monday after arguments from both sides. (Nick Graham/The Journal-News via AP, Pool)

Sentencing

For the abuse of a corpse conviction, Warren County Common Pleas Judge Donald Oda II ordered Skylar to serve three years of supervised probation while warning her that any violations of the probation could result in jail time.

The paternal grandmother of baby Annabelle, Tracy Johnson, was visibly upset during the sentencing phase of the trial but chose to make a statement. As she looked down at her notes during the hearing, she read aloud about how the past two years have affected her and her son, Trey Johnson.

Tracy Johnson said that since the incident, she’s been depressed and has avoided family functions. She also accused Richardson of referring to Annabelle as “a baby she called ‘it,” while refusing to tell the baby’s father that she was even pregnant.

“Not only did I lose my first grandchild, but my baby boy lost his daughter,” said Johnson. “For a baby that she called ‘it,’ we’re just as much the family as she is.”

“I would have taken her in with Trey without a question. Now, instead, every May 7, I don’t get to have a birthday party for my first grandchild. Instead, I send her balloons to heaven, to tell her how much her daddy loved her, and how much I loved her.”

Richardson apologized to the Johnson family and admitted she had been selfish.

“I’m forever sorry,” Richardson replied while looking over her shoulder toward Tracy Johnson. “I’m so sorry.”

Judge Oda told Richardson that baby Annabelle likely would have been alive today if not for her decisions to conceal the pregnancy and birth.

“I firmly believe Ms. Richardson, in fact, I know in my heart that if you would have made different decisions in this case, Annabell would be here today. I think that your choices before birth, during birth and after show a grotesque disregard for life.”

Oda also gave the infant’s remains, which have been kept by authorities as evidence, to the Richardson family for a proper burial.

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