Photo: Kareem Elgazzar, AP
Woman acquitted of killing newborn says she's 'forever sorry'
From the day the police showed up at her family's house to the day she was acquitted of murder, Brooke Skylar Richardson never spoke publicly about what happened to the baby girl whom she named Annabelle and said was born stillborn. As strangers branded her a "baby killer" and she stared down the possibility of life in prison, the 20-year-old Ohio woman kept her feelings to herself.
Richardson's silence ended Friday, when she stood in a Warren County courtroom for her sentencing hearing. Addressing a judge and briefly turning to the rest of the room, she apologized repeatedly.
"I just wanted to say how sorry I was," she said. "I can sometimes be selfish, but I would like to think that I've become better in the knowledge that I've upset everyone and hurt so many people with what I've done. And I'm forever sorry."
It was the conclusion of what Richardson's attorneys called a "nightmare," a tabloid saga in which the former high school cheerleader was accused of killing her newborn two days after her May 2017 prom. The lurid details of the case - including recanted allegations that Richardson burned the baby's corpse before burying it in her family's backyard - drew national headlines and turned the young woman into a pariah in her small hometown.
Although jurors acquitted Richardson of the most serious charges on Thursday, they convicted her of gross abuse of a corpse, a minor felony that carries a one-year maximum sentence. Judge Donald Oda on Friday sentenced her to seven days in jail, releasing her with credit for time served. But first, he rebuked her for showing "grotesque disregard for life" in what he called a "story of two little girls: Skylar Richardson and Annabelle Richardson."
"I firmly believe - in fact I know, Miss Richardson, in my heart - that if you would have made different decisions in this case, Annabelle would be here today," Oda said. "And I know that may be difficult for you to hear. Some people are inclined to think to themselves, 'This is America; we kill unborn babies every day.' But I don't think of it that way."
Richardson's ordeal began in spring 2017, as her senior year at Carlisle High School drew to a close and she prepared to start college at the University of Cincinnati. She had been pregnant for months by the time, but no one knew. The bump barely showed when she wore a cheerleading uniform on the sidelines, or a bikini on spring break, or even when she wore a snug-fitting sparkly red gown to prom. Richardson's family told Cosmopolitan her weight often fluctuated because of eating disorders.
The teenager herself did not learn of her pregnancy until April 26, 2017, when she saw a gynecologist for the first time, Cosmo reported. Her relationship with her new boyfriend was progressing, and her mom thought it was time to consider starting birth control. But the doctor told Richardson she couldn't: She was already pregnant. The baby was from a relationship with a different boy - one Richardson had ended during the summer of 2016.
Over the eight-day trial, prosecutors told a tale of a teenager who killed her baby out of concern that her college plans - and her "good girl" image - were at stake, according to the Enquirer. Defense attorneys insisted that the child was dead at birth and the frightened young mother did not know what to do besides bury her.
"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," Warren County Assistant Prosecutor Julie Kraft said, according to Fox 19′s video footage of the trial. "And Brooke told no one. She did not tell her parents, her friends or the baby's father."
The baby came in the middle of the night on May 7, 2017, in the home Richardson shared with her parents and younger brother. As her family laid asleep, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, the teenager slipped alone into a bathroom - and emerged with a lifeless baby.
Prosecutors said they did not know how the newborn was killed. But defense attorneys said the baby girl was a lifeless pale at delivery. She wasn't breathing. The umbilical cord wasn't attached to the placenta. Recounting what her daughter eventually told her, Richardson's mother, Kim, told the Enquirer that Skylar cried as she cradled the baby for hours, waiting for it to open its eyes or cry or move. It never did.
Finally, Richardson's mother said, the teenager grabbed a garden spade from the garage and retreated to the far end of the family's expansive backyard. She dug a hole between two pine trees and covered the small grave with flowers she'd worn at prom. Still she told no one.
Her family only found out when police arrived months later, after Skylar Richardson's gynecologist reported the baby's death to the Warren County coroner, leaving the cause of death blank.
"It is so hard to believe that I had a grandchild that I never got to hold," her mother told the Enquirer.
Richardson's attorneys blasted prosecutors for "overcharging" the young woman and said they feared she might never escape the media glare. But Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said that even after the verdict, he still believed Richardson killed her child. He stood by his office's handling of the case.
"We owed it to that little girl," the Enquirer quoted him as saying. "It had to be tried."
During Friday's sentencing hearing, the child's paternal grandmother, Tracy Johnson, cried as she described her son's grief and her own anguish over the loss of her first grandchild. She said she would have raised the baby herself. Last Christmas, she stayed home from family celebrations, unable to stop thinking that it would have been the first Christmas the little girl would have been old enough to love. She imagined the child opening her own presents - "way more toys than any child could ever play with."
"As we live with our grief and loss, she can now live knowing that her selfish decision was not her only choice," Johnson said of Richardson. "She had a way out."
At the judge's order, the child will be buried at a Richardson family plot that both families can visit. For more than two years, the remains had been in sheriff's office custody. With the case now concluded, the baby will get a memorial service and a final resting place.