In July 2017, police in small-town Carlisle, Ohio uncovered an unmarked infant’s grave in the backyard of a prominent family. On Tuesday, jury selection began in the case of the alleged murderer—a high school cheerleader accused of killing her newborn baby to protect her good-girl image.
Brooke Skylar Richardson, now 20, is charged with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, and three other felonies. She faces life in prison if convicted. Richardson’s attorneys say she experienced a stillbirth and buried a fetus delivered at 33 weeks in the backyard. The state contends she purposefully killed an infant born alive because she did not want to be pregnant.
The case has sparked interest and outcry around the world, in part because of misleading reports that Richardson burned the fetal remains before burying them. It has also drawn concern from national advocacy groups who say charging Richardson with murder sets a dangerous precedent for pregnant people. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks, and has already drawn national media to the 5,000-person town of Carlisle.
Authorities discovered the remains of the infant, whom Richardson’s family says she named Annabelle, after being tipped off by the teenager’s doctors in the summer of 2017. Prosecutors say Richardson had an “extreme” reaction after being told she was pregnant and did not return for follow-up prenatal visits. Another physician called police after Richardson came in months later and told her she had “gone into labor, delivered a stillborn baby, and buried the baby in her backyard,” according to court papers.
Prosecutors initially claimed that Richardson burned the baby before burying it, but the forensic anthropologist assigned to the case later appeared to recant that claim. In opening statements Tuesday, prosecutors said the evidence would still show that Richardson gave birth alone, buried the baby, disposed of the evidence, and kept it a secret from everyone—including her parents.
In announcing the charges two years ago, the prosecution focused on painting the Richardson family as "obsessed with external appearances,” and their daughter as being willing to do anything to keep them up. They are expected to use evidence of her eating disorder, her time on the cheerleading squad and track team, and her participation in the National Honor Society—evidence Richardson’s defense has used to paint her as a rule-abiding overachiever—as proof that she was preoccupied with maintaining her image.
Her defense attorneys, meanwhile, say Richardson was the victim of a “massive rush to judgment.” They have claimed her response to learning she was pregnant was normal and expected for a teenager, and said Tuesday that she hadn’t told her family about the pregnancy before what they say was a miscarriage because she did not expect to give birth so soon.
Attorney Charles Rittger blasted the prosecution for refusing to retract the claim that Richardson burned the baby, even after the forensic anthropologist walked back her statements, and for leaning heavily on statements he said Richardson made under grueling police interrogation.
“They disregard all truth that does not fit into their story,” he said in the courtroom Tuesday.
Richardson’s trial was delayed for years in part because the defense moved several times to omit evidence, and twice to have the charges dismissed. Her attorneys say she has been unable to find a job in that time period, and is working part-time for their law firm while attending community college.
Advocacy groups say the prosecution sets a dangerous precedent for criminalizing pregnant people, and could lead to more erroneous charges against those who have stillbirths. Others took issue with the court’s decision to let Richardson’s doctors testify, in what they say is a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality.
Reproductive rights groups such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and the Center for Reproductive Rights submitted a legal brief on Richardson’s behalf last year. Amber Khan, a senior staff attorney for the NAPW, told The Daily Beast that requiring doctors to testify against their patients “perverts what the role of the physician should be.”
“Rather than function as healthcare providers, what they’re functioning as is reporters to law enforcement,” Khan said. “They're calling police, they’re calling social services—they’re essentially witnesses against their own patients.”
She added, “That undermines the healthcare system and certainly will deter folks from wanting to get healthcare at all.”