View photos Expert Explains: Why Was Cheerleader Acquitted of Killing Newborn She Later Buried? More A former cheerleader was found acquitted of killing her newborn because prosecutors never were able to prove the child was alive at the time of its birth, says an expert who followed the case.
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The woman, Brooke Skylar Richardson , now 20, was acquitted Thursday of aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. Jurors found her guilty only of one charge — gross abuse of a corpse — after Richardson admitted to burying the body in the backyard of her family’s Ohio home in July 2017, when she was 18.
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On Friday she was sentenced to three years’ probation on the lone conviction, with credit for seven days she already has spent in custody. Under guidelines set by Judge Donald Oda II, who said Richardson’s choices showed “a grotesque disregard for life,” she could spend up to a year in jail if she violates that probation
“The prosecution had a real hurdle that they were never really going to get over, which was the real inability of any of their folks to state with certainty that Skylar’s baby was ever alive after birth,” Bill Gallagher, an Ohio criminal justice attorney who was not involved with the case, tells PEOPLE
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“In this case, what they were relying on were statements that she made during police questioning that either implied, indicated or sometimes inferred the child was alive,” he says
View photos Brooke Skylar Richardson | WLWT5 More RELATED: Everything to Know About Trial for Cheerleader Accused of Murdering Her Newborn and Burying Body
“The defense and their experts did a wonderful job of undermining any of the credibility of any of those statements,” he says. “They were able to convincingly present that Skylar was vulnerable to manipulative police questioning, and as a result, really cast doubt on whether anything that she told police was, in fact, true.”
View photos Brooke Skylar Richardson, at left, with her attorney | Greg Lynch/The Journal-News via AP More • Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
In particular, the allegation that Richardson had attempted to cremate the body was suspect from the start, he says
A forensic pathologist who examined the bones found in the yard “conveyed her initial belief that charring had occurred,” which police learned only after their initial interview with Richardson. “So they went into [a] second interview with Skylar believing that there were flames and that the baby had been subject to fire,” says Gallagher
“The problem is, that information turned out to be wrong,” he says. “Even the state’s own expert had to admit that there was no charring.”
“When the jury learned that [Richardson] was willing to admit to that falsity,” he says, “I think anything else was unbelievable for them.”
RELATED: Ex-Cheerleader Accused of Killing Newborn Blew off Doctors’ Calls, Didn’t Have Ultrasound: Prosecutors
View photos Brooke Skylar Richardson | Nick Graham/The Journal-News via AP More The sole conviction for abuse of a corpse required jurors to find that the manner in which a body was handled “would be objectionable to the common sensibilities of the community,” says the attorney. “It doesn’t require you to do anything wrong to the baby; it doesn’t require you to do any damage to the baby. I think it was easy for people to say that burying a child in a shallow grave, unmarked, unwrapped, without notifying authorities — it was too much.”
At a news conference after Richardson was indicted, the prosecutor “talked about the abuse that was done to this child … [and] about some of the things that they, at the time, believed she did,” says Gallagher
Prosecutors argued that Richardson did not want to be a single teen mom with college only a few months away. In the weeks after learning of her pregnancy, Richardson didn’t return for an ultrasound , bloodwork, or any other treatment, while also ignoring calls from the doctor and assistants, prosecutors alleged
In a police interview played in court last Thursday, Richardson allegedly told police that she didn’t return her doctor’s phone calls because she was scared. “I didn’t really want to have my baby,” she told police. “I really don’t know what I planned to do.”
Yet in general the case “exposes some of the problems with police questioning practices, and I also think it calls into question what I think is a prosecution that was unwilling to sort of reset itself,” says Gallagher
Testimony gathered by the defense included a false confession expert and a second forensic pathologist who concluded that the bones showed no evidence of charring. A psychologist introduced evidence of Richardson’s “sort of frail psyche and state,” and said that because of other factors, “you had an 18-year-old girl who was probably at the maturity level of a 12-year-old.”
Even with that information ahead of the trial, “the prosecution never really took a second look at its case and re-evaluated,” says Gallagher. “It had already sort of committed to a narrative that was created very early on.”
That narrative is what sunk them, he says, because the defense found it easy to puncture holes in the story