A trial date has been set in the case of Brooke Skylar Richardson, the 18-year-old Ohio woman who has been accused of killing her baby after telling her doctors she’d given birth to a stillborn child.
Richardson was recently indicted on five counts including aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, tampering with evidence, and gross abuse of a corpse. These charges stem from the discovery of skeletal remains found in the backyard of the Carlisle home where Richardson has lived with her parents for her entire life.
The investigation began July 14, after the police received a call from a doctor at the Hilltop OB-GYN clinic saying that Richardson had reported a stillbirth. Hours later, investigators showed up at the home of Richardson’s parents, Michael and Kimberley, with a search warrant and found the remains. Police said an autopsy later revealed a live birth, though they have not been forthcoming about what evidence was used to support this.
After Richardson was initially arrested on charges of reckless homicide, the family cooperated with investigators and sat down to interrogations over a two-day period without an attorney present. Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell then presented the case against Richardson to a grand jury, which indicted her on the five counts.
At a hearing on August 7, Richardson pleaded not guilty to the charges and Fornshell asked for a million-dollar bond “due to the severity of the crime.” Judge Donald Oda II set bond at $50,000, saying that he did not believe she poses an “imminent threat” to the community and that he has seen little evidence for the serious accusations.
After Richardson posted bond, she was fitted with an ankle monitor and put on house arrest. Her trial will begin November 6, with the next hearing scheduled for August 25.
Between the time of the first arrest and the formal accusation, Fornshell and investigators were tight-lipped and refused to make any statements apart from holding a press conference August 4, at which Fornshell accused Richardson of giving birth before burning the body and burying it in the backyard.
“I am not sure we ever will provide to you the exact medical cause of death and the reason for that is because the child was, after death, burned and subsequently buried and there was significant decomposition to the body,” Fornshell said at the conference. Based on the bone measurements, Fornshell said, Richardson had been 38 to 40 weeks pregnant.
Fornshell added that he has decided not to seek the death penalty, but he is pursuing the murder charge as a special felony and is seeking life in prison for Richardson, if she is convicted.
A few days after Richardson’s August 7 hearing, Fornshell posted on social media that “testing has confirmed the baby was born a girl.” That same day, news emerged that Judge Oda had issued a gag order for all parties in the case. He identified 13 links from published media reports in his motion and said he wanted to ensure a fair trial.
Before the gag order, Richardson’s attorney Charlie M. Rittgers told Rewire that he has, so far, seen no evidence to support the prosecution’s accusations. Although he does not have discovery—the ability to obtain evidence from the prosecution—he intends to seek the assistance of independent experts to examine the remains.
Rittgers said that Richardson, who goes by her middle name, Skylar, has “led an exemplary life” so far.
“She is a good person. A good student who has been a high honors student all her life. She has never been in any trouble of any kind. She was every teacher’s pet,” Rittgers said, pointing out that Richardson had been a cheerleader and on the student council for three years. Richardson just graduated from Carlisle High School and was planning to go to the University of Cincinnati in the fall. In the past, Rittgers said, she had participated in a youth retreat program and volunteered with Bogg Ministries, where she served meals to homeless people. According to her attorney, she has also helped children with disabilities learn cheerleading through a local nonprofit.
Her high school and the YMCA where she worked at the time of her arrest have declined comment to all media requests.
“She didn’t drink. She wasn’t a partier or a smoker. By all measures, she is a good girl who helped children …. She is a good person,” Rittgers said. “This is a tragic situation and Skylar is taking it in the way you would expect: It has shocked her.”
Richardson’s peers and neighbors, who spoke about her and her family on condition of anonymity, told Rewire that she was a “serious, quiet girl” who hung out with very few kids and never “bothered anyone at school.”
Richardson’s case has also attracted national attention from advocates who note that it bears some resemblance to that of Purvi Patel’s, the Indiana woman who was arrested after prosecutors said she delivered a live fetus following taking abortion-inducing drugs obtained from the internet. Patel was ordered to serve 20 years in prison for feticide and felony neglect of a dependent in 2016. After an appeal, the feticide charge was overturned and the neglect charge was reduced last year.
“Reading about the Richardson case brought a sense of dread and déjà vu,” said the Rev. Marie Siroky, a board-certified chaplain and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ in Indiana. Siroky has spent much of her life as an advocate who ministers to women who are prosecuted after the outcome of their pregnancies.
“The prosecutor states it was a live birth while saying that the cause of death may never be known due to the conditions of the remains. Where is the evidence of live birth?” she asked.
Referencing Patel’s case, Siroky said, “I want to make it very clear that I do not condone that [corpses] be buried or thrown into dumpsters, but who knows what is happening to them at that moment. It’s easy to judge after the fact.”
Siroky is distressed at Fornshell’s speculation into Richardson’s motive: that she “purposefully caused the death of the child” to maintain her “good girl” appearances. At the press conference, Fornshell said that he is “pro-life” and this case “affects him as a father” because his daughter is at the cusp of the teen years.
As a chaplain, it upsets Siroky that health-care providers alert police with no evidence of a crime. “It seems as if the documented frequency of miscarriages or fetal demise is forgotten and the immediate thought is foul play,” Siroky said. Although miscarriage frequency is difficult to pinpoint because individuals may not realize they are pregnant, studies show that anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of all clinically recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage.
Nancy Rosenbloom, director of legal advocacy at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women in New York says that she has worked on similar cases nationwide where the prosecutors punish women who give birth under what they consider “suspicious circumstances.”
“To prosecute women for a pregnancy loss is not a good policy, but the authorities act on it as if it is a basic principle. [Women] have a right to seek medical treatment without the prospect of prison hanging over their heads,” Rosenbloom said.
Rosenbloom says that while “we don’t know what happened,” with Richardson, she believes that the “case will require a lot of actual evidence” to prove the prosecution’s theory. She notes many tests like the “lung float test” that prosecutors might use to prove that a baby drew a single breath are faulty and widely discredited.
Some who agree with the prosecutor’s conclusions point to the age of the teen, saying his proposed sentence is too strong.
“I’m sad for this young woman and think that the prospect of life in jail is too harsh,” said the Rev. Rebecca J. Tollefson, executive director of Ohio Council of Churches, in an interview with Rewire.
“I understand that there needs to be justice as well. Maybe she needs to enter a program for respecting herself and accept the consequences of her decision. The greater question is how can the law assist [her] to be a better person,” Tollefson said.
Since news first emerged about Richardson’s case, social media has been set ablaze with comments about the young woman, with some calling her names such as “child killer” or “baby killer.”
Two protesters showed up at the recent court hearing and confronted the Richardson family. Cherie Young and Karen Miller said they were the voice of “Baby Carlisle” and they held signs that said, “Abortion is legal, Murder is not.” The Richardson family did not acknowledge the pair.
While local attorneys and judges have declined to comment on the case, Judge Norbert Nadel, a retired judge from nearby Hamilton County has been unable to resist the temptation to add his opinion, telling WCPO Channel 9 (and repeating to Rewire) that Richardson’s bail was set far too low.
Many caution that the presumption of guilt is unhelpful and will hamper the chances for a fair trial. Siroky, for example, noted that existing media coverage did not do the case justice. “Thankfully, the judge has imposed a gag order. However, the damage is done. While the quote that Richardson killed her baby is attributed to authorities, the evidence behind the quote is missing,” Siroky said.
“People are premature in their judgments. Most of the facts of the case have yet to be released and frankly, they are still unknown to me,” Rittgers said.
“I want people to have an open mind and withhold their judgments until we get discovery,” he continued.