Local and national media flocked to Lebanon for the trial of Brooke “Skylar” Richardson. The trial was broadcast live all over the internet and cameras filled the courthouse entry for reaction as defense attorneys Charles H. Rittgers and Charles M. Rittgers speak to the media after the verdict was read in the courtroom of Judge Donald Oda II Thursday, Sept. 12. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

After the media circus: Richardson trial showed benefits of better access, judges say

Brooke Skylar Richardson, 20, was convicted Thursday of abuse of a corpse, a fifth-degree felony, for burying her newborn in the backyard of herhome in 2017. She was acquitted of aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.

Before sentencing Richardson to three years of community control on Friday, Judge Donald Oda II explained his decision to permit media access to broadcast every moment of the trial. Media from Dayton, Cincinnati and across the country also livestreamed much of the trial from the video.

Oda said he wanted to make sure any members of the community or the country would have an opportunity to decide for themselves, so he allowed livesteaming locally and three Court TV remote cameras in the courtroom for gavel-to-gavel coverage.

After more than two years of twists and turns, the Richardson trial began Sept. 3 and was available for all to watch, even if they couldn’t secure a seat in the small courtroom.

To make that happen, Oda said a hole was drilled in the wall of the criminal justice center to feed cables from a television van to the building and the wireless bandwidth was increased to accommodate media mobile devices, laptops and a massive amount of equipment.

“The reason was so that the community, whether they agreed with the verdict or not, would have confidence in the way the decision was reached,” Oda said. “So if somebody comes up to you about how we have a baby killer that got off in Warren County or that we have an innocent person who was convicted and didn’t do anything wrong, direct them to the actual evidence so they can get a better idea whether or not they have an accurate opinion of if justice was served in the this case.”

Oda said it was important for the community to be able to make its own decisions based on evidence, not simply what was disseminated on social media.

While the Richardson case was high-profile before the actual trial, Oda was mindful more access could bolster that status.

“My only concern throughout the trial was whether the tremendous access fueled the fire and escalated the profile of this case higher than it might have otherwise been. In hindsight, I would do it the same way — I only wished I looked better on camera,” Oda said.

Longtime Butler County Common Pleas Judge Noah Powers II, who also served as a defense attorney and prosecutor, said that “we all believe in open courtroom, but you still have to assure a fair trial.”

Powers said before the internet, live coverage meant people packing the courtroom daily to watch trials.

“And they did, every day,” he said.

More access to trial activities can make it easier for the general public to understand how the legal system works, he said.

“You know, people may be watching trials in different ways now, but they have always had an appetite for watching high-profile cases,” Powers said. “The cases seem to take on a life of their own”

Powers was an assistant prosecutor in the 1991 trial of Jose Trinidad Loza. Loza is now death row after being convicted of the 1991 Middletown murder of his girlfriend’s mother, his girlfriend’s brother and his girlfriend’s sisters, one of whom was pregnant when she died. All were shot in the head.

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Howard, who was a defense attorney for years representing many in death penalty cases, agreed that 30 years ago people packed the courthouse for big trials.

“Now they are watching other ways,” Howard said. “It (live coverage) is useful for people to see how things really go down in court.”

But, Howard said, unlike Warren County courtrooms that have separate soundproof media rooms, Butler County courtrooms really are not made to accommodate large media coverage.

In the April trial of Lindsay Partin, a Hanover Twp. woman convicted of murder for the death of a toddler she was babysitting, cameras from multiple outlets crowded Judge Greg Stephens’ courtroom and provided live coverage.

“I would tell my fellow judges that your trial is going to get covered whether you want it to or not. It makes much more sense to work with the media than against them,” Oda said.

“The members of the press were, for the most part, respectful and cooperative, even though we have different agendas. It seemed to me that most felt like they had more stake in the case because their input was considered.”

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