Efforts to seat jury set to begin in newborn killing case
LEBANON, Ohio (AP) — The prosecutorial narrative of a small-town cheerleader so desperate to hide an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that she allegedly killed and buried her baby just days after her senior prom has gripped her home region of southwest Ohio.
Attorneys and the judge in the trial of Brooke Skylar Richardson will start learning Tuesday what impact news coverage and social media debate has had on their ability to seat a fair and impartial jury. Now 20, Richardson has pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder and other charges in the death of her baby, whose remains were found in July 2017 in her family’s backyard in Carlisle, a village of some 5,000 people 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Cincinnati.
Warren County Common Pleas Judge Donald Oda II last month rejected for a second time the defense’s request to move the trial. He said then he plans an initial jury pool of some 70 people. They will fill out questionnaires and courtroom questioning about their knowledge and opinions about the high-profile case .
Richardson’s attorneys have said the baby was stillborn and that the then-teen was sad and frightened. They reject prosecution allegations that she burned the full-term newborn baby and tried to hide the baby’s existence.
When announcing the murder indictment, Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said Richardson and her family were “pretty obsessed” with appearances and worried about community reaction to her pregnancy.
“You have a situation where, you know, she’s a cute ... recent high school graduate; she was a cheerleader described (as) a good girl by her attorney as you heard,” Fornshell said, saying she “wanted to perpetuate” that image.
Authorities citing information from a doctor say they believe the baby was born in May 2017.
Richardson’s defense attorneys, the father-and-son team of Charles H. Rittgers and Charles M. Rittgers, have said prosecutors promoted “a false narrative” to turn a sad case into “something sinister and grotesque.”
In an Aug. 16 filing, they said Warren County’s approximately 230,000 people have been “bombarded by video, print, Internet and social media coverage.”
The county lies between Cincinnati and Dayton, so the case has drawn coverage in two television markets as well as attention from national magazines and true-crime TV shows.
The trial could be the county’s most-watched since the case of Ryan Widmer , a young husband accused in 2008 of the bathtub drowning of his wife. An initial murder conviction was thrown out on appeal, a second trial ended in a hung jury, and then he was sentenced to 15 years to life after his conviction in a third trial. All three were in Warren County.
Attorney Jay Clark, who represented Widmer in the last two trials, said despite extensive publicity in that case, it was possible to seat juries. He said the goal will be to weed out those who have already formed opinions on guilt or innocence.
“It kind of goes hand-in-hand,” Clark said. “The more publicity, the more likely you have a tainted jury pool.”
But, he added, publicity doesn’t rule out finding jurors who still have an open mind about the case. The goal during questioning, he said, is to drill beneath insistence they will be fair, to avoid seating people “who want to be on the jury” because it’s such high-profile case.
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