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Jurors begin deliberating in young mother’s murder trial

September 12, 2019
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Brooke "Skylar" Richardson walks into the courthouse before closing arguments in her trial at Warren County Common Pleas Court Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in Lebanon, Ohio. Richardson, accused of killing and burying her newborn daughter, has pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder and other charges. (Nick Graham/The Journal-News via AP)
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Brooke "Skylar" Richardson walks into the courthouse before closing arguments in her trial at Warren County Common Pleas Court Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in Lebanon, Ohio. Richardson, accused of killing and burying her newborn daughter, has pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder and other charges. (Nick Graham/The Journal-News via AP)

LEBANON, Ohio (AP) — Jurors sat in rapt attention as lawyers gave sometimes emotional closing arguments Thursday, then began deliberating whether to convict a young Ohio woman of murder in the 2017 death of her newborn.

Brooke Skylar Richardson, now 20, was 18 years old at the time she secretly gave birth to a baby girl at her Carlisle, Ohio, home in May 2017, then buried the remains. The seven women and five men got the case late Thursday morning.

Her lawyers say the baby, whom Richardson named “Annabelle,” was stillborn, but prosecutors say circumstantial evidence points to murder, especially because Richardson cleaned up a bloody mess and expressed being “happy” about her belly shrinking after the baby was gone.

However, medical experts who testified for both prosecution and defense agreed there was no physical proof that the baby was alive. A live birth must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” if the jury is to convict on any of the three most serious charges Richardson faces: aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter and child endangering. She also is accused of abuse of a corpse. She could face life in prison if convicted of aggravated murder.

Julie Kraft, assistant Warren County prosecutor, said the high school cheerleader was anxious to get on with a “perfect life” that didn’t include an unwanted baby.

Charles M. Rittgers started his closing argument by attacking prosecutors for sticking with inaccurate information — that an expert saw evidence the baby’s bones were burned.

“They continue that narrative — their story — even though they know it’s false! It’s sad,” he said.

Rittgers said prosecutors were motivated to hide the lack of burning because “if you have reason to doubt the burning, you have reasons to doubt signs of life in this case.”

Rittgers’ voice quavered as he described the birth of his own child this past March. He told jurors to follow the law, to presume Richardson was innocent.

“If you have reason to doubt the live birth, you have to fight for Skylar,” he said.

The baby’s remains were skeletal by the time Richardson led investigators to the burial site. A prosecution expert’s report said that punctures in the baby’s skull bones occurred after death, but no expert was able to provide a specific cause of death for the based on the condition of the remains. A state fire marshal’s report showed no accelerant was found at the burial site.

Assistant Prosecutor Steve Knippen responded to the defense arguments with reasons why jurors should believe that Richardson purposely killed her child. He pointed to her own text messages, sent while “she thought she had gotten away with everything.” One was: “OMG, my belly is back,” about her improved physique.

He called her failure to seek help when she knew the birth was imminent “the single most insightful piece of evidence” in the case.

“There can be no justification for just lying there and not lifting a single finger to help that child,” Knippen said.

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Associated Press writer Dan Sewell contributed in Cincinnati.

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