Former Cheerleader Found Not Guilty of Murdering Newborn -- But Not Everyone Is Convinced

Brooke Skylar Richardson in court
WLWT

The emotional trial for Brooke Skylar Richardson came to a close Thursday, as those in a packed courtroom in Ohio sat with bated breath for the jury to read the final verdict. According to People, the jury deliberated for just four hours and 25 minutes before reaching a decision, which found the former high school cheerleader not guilty of aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, or child endangerment in the death of her newborn baby in May 2017. Richardson was, however, found guilty of one charge: gross abuse of a corpse. During a sentencing trial on Friday, the judge's decision once again shocked the courtroom, when Richardson was sentenced to just three years probation.

  • People reports that Richardson was "visibly shaking" and "breathing heavily and seemingly on the verge of tears" while waiting for the verdict.

    Upon hearing the verdict, she erupted into tears. Behind her, her mother leaned forward to tell her, “We love you so much. We love you, baby.”

    The Ohio woman was charged with murdering her infant daughter, whom she gave birth to in secret in the middle of the night in the bathroom of her parents' home. As they slept, she crept into the backyard, dug a shallow grave with a shovel, and buried the body by a fire pit.

    Richardson's defense lawyers have maintained that the baby was stillborn, and although the teen was guilty of wrongfully concealing the birth and disposing of the corpse, they insisted she wasn't a murderer.

    The prosecution, however, wasn't so sure. 

    Not only did Richardson, then 18, hide her pregnancy from friends and family, but her OB-GYN testified last week that after learning she was pregnant in April 2017, she allegedly told him, "I can't have a baby. I'm going to college in September."

    Later, investigators would discover an online search for "how do I get rid of a baby" just days after learning she was pregnant.

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  • During the trial, both the prosecution and defense pored over the details of Richardson's actions in the days after learning she was pregnant.

    The prosecution pointed to damning statements made during Richardson's recorded interview with police, where she seemed to negate the narrative that the baby had been born without any signs of life. 

    "Did you hear her cry?" a detective was heard asking her on the video, taken in July 2017.

    "Maybe a little," Richardson told him.

    Later, the then-teen was heard saying, “I think I killed her … I squeezed her,” before adding, "I loved her.”

    But according to the defense, these statements were all taken out of context, and Richardson felt coerced into making some of them.

  • Although she did hide the pregnancy from her parents, Richardson's lawyer reminded the court that she only learned the news 11 days before the birth.

    By then, Charlie H. Rittgers insisted, she was well into her pregnancy, but was told by her doctor that she likely had another eight weeks or more left. 

    To the teen, she had more time to figure out what she'd tell her parents, and thought it was best to follow through with her plans to attend prom and graduation before dropping a bomb on them. Instead, the baby came early, and when she was stillborn, Richardson is said to have panicked, unaware of what else to do.

    The body would not be discovered until July, after the teen returned to her OB-GYN office to seek birth control and was asked about her baby by a doctor reviewing her medical charts. The teen broke down, admitted she'd given birth but that the baby was stillborn, and divulged that she buried her body in the backyard. 

    Had the OB-GYN not alerted authorities, it's unclear when, if ever, the incident would have been discovered.

  • Despite the verdict, prosecutors remain convinced that the former teen cheerleader caused the child's death.

    At a news conference Thursday following the verdict, Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell admitted that a difficult part of the prosecution's case revolved on the inconclusive cause of death. Because the baby was found some two months after its birth, decomposition made it impossible for a medical examiner to rule it a homicide or a natural death.

    "Brooke Richardson created the situation that prevented us from being able to conduct an autopsy on that baby girl," Fornshell told reporters, adding that he is "absolutely convinced she caused the death" of her child.

  • On Friday, Richardson appeared before a judge once more to learn her fate over the final charge: abuse of a corpse.

    The charges stemmed from the accusation that Richardson had attempted to cremate the baby's body before she buried it. In fact, during one point during a police recorded interview, she admitted as much.

    “Honey, tell us what happened,” her father allegedly asked her, according to a police transcript.

    “I tried to cremate the baby,” Richardson reportedly responded.

    According to the police report, a homicide detective wrote that Richardson allegedly used a lighter to light the baby's foot on fire, but that she put it out once flames reached the baby's chest. The defense, however, disputed this chain of events, and later a medical examiner could not say for certain whether the baby had been burned.

    Yet whether or not the cause of death could be definitively proven, there was no denying that Richardson's actions following the birth were grossly negligent, which is likely what led to her guilty verdict on that charge.

    The 20-year-old will avoid jail time for her actions, according to WCPO. Instead, Judge Donald Oda sentenced her to three years of community control, also known as probation. Although she also received a seven-day jail sentence, it was credited due to time served.

    If she violates the terms of her probation, Richardson could face up to one year in jail but otherwise will remain a free woman.