Baby Richard Trial: 1991-95

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Baby Richard Trial: 1991-95

Plaintiff: Otakar Kirchner
Defendants: Jay and Kimberly Warburton
Chief Defense Lawyer: Richard Lifshitz
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Loren Heineman
Judges: Dom J. Rizzi and Ann G. McMorrow
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trials: 1991-1995
Verdict: For the plaintiff: custody of the child Baby Richard awarded to his biological father, Otakar Kirchner

SIGNIFICANCE: The Baby Richard case elicited public outrage against the legal system at its worst. Outmoded adoption principles and a strict adherence to the law failed to protect a child whose fate was determined by interests other than his own. Intervention by the Illinois legislature spotlighted even more media attention on this sad case.

In the fall of 1989, Otakar Kirchner met Daniella Janikova in Chicago. The two, both emigrants from the former Czechoslovakia, moved in together, and soon Daniella became pregnant.

During the pregnancy, Kirchner returned to Europe for a time. Upon hearing rumors that he had taken up with his previous girlfriend there, Daniella abandoned her plans to marry him and also decided, without telling Kirchner, to put her baby up for adoption. She asked her friends and family to tell Kirchner that the baby had died.

Daniella hired an attorney to begin the process of finding adoptive parents for her unborn child. The attorney soon found and contacted Jay and Kimberly Warburton, who were hoping to adopt a baby. The Warburtons and their attorney were told of Kirchner's existence, but not his identity, since Daniella would not reveal it. According to later court records, they also knew that Daniella had planned to tell Kirchner that the baby had died. Four days after the birth of the child, known as "Baby Richard," Daniella put him up for adoption and the Warburtons took custody and began adoption proceedings.

Father Attempts to Gain Custody

Kirchner, meanwhile, aware of the due date, had returned from Europe and tried to learn of Richard's fate, checking with area hospitals, searching public records for evidence of the birth or death, and frequenting Daniella's neighborhood. However, he apparently did not try to contact Daniella or her doctor directly, or consult an attorney. Despite being told of the baby's death, he kept up his efforts to find out what had happened. Two months after Richard was born, a friend of Daniella's told him the truth, and Kirchner intervened in the adoption proceedings to gain custody of his son.

The ensuing litigation spawned a number of strongly worded judicial opinions, several appeals to state and federal courts, and a great public outcry over Richard's fate. The Illinois Court of Appeals decided the case on the basis of the baby's best interests, which Illinois adoption laws dictated. Judge Dom Rizzi ruled that the interests of the baby would best be served if Richard remained with the Warburtons, since by that time he had been with them for nearly two and a half years, and his biological parents were now utter strangers to him. Rizzi also found that Kirchner was an unfit parent in light of what the judge characterized as feeble efforts to learn the truth about Richard. "There comes a point," stated Rizzi, "when we should not be ignorant as judges of what we know as men and women."

However, the Illinois Supreme Court, in a terse opinion, reversed the court of appeals and Judge Rizzi's ruling and invalidated the adoption, awarding custody instead to Kirchner. Rizzi, the court determined, had done things backwards: under Illinois law, the courts could not even begin to consider Richard's best interests until they first found Kirchner to be an unfit parent, thus terminating his parental rights. One justice noted the public furor surrounding the case and the irresponsibility of the press in stirring up outrage against the courts; he accused one Chicago columnist in particular of "character assassination" and "journalistic terrorism" against the court system.

Illinois Legislature Gets Involved

The Illinois Supreme Court's decision's unpopularity led to an immediate convening of an emergency session of the state legislature, which at once passed a retroactive law requiring a custody hearing in the case. This led Kirchner to seek a writ of habeas corpus from the Illinois Supreme Court to gain custody of the child, and the Illinois court promptly granted Kirchner's request. At the same time the court took the legislature to task for trying to reverse, by statute, the court's earlier decision.

The Illinois Supreme Court's second ruling in favor of Kirchner, however, was not unanimous. Breaking away from her peers on the court, Justice Ann G. McMorrow, who had sided with the majority in the first decision, now dissented, denouncing the judicial system that had let the case drag on for four years. She was to be only one of many critics of Baby Richard's court-decreed fate. It was popularly believed that the system had failed Richard; but the court was not alone in the blamKirchner, Daniella, the Warburtons and their attorney who had known of Kirchner's existence, social workers, the presseveryone seemed to have played a part in the unpopular ruling.

On April 30, 1995, amid a media circus, Kirchner and Daniella arrived at the Warburtons' house and took Richard home with them. Richard cried pitifully and begged the Warburtons not to make him leave. Kirchner and Daniella later married, but in January 1997 Kirchner moved out, leaving Daniella and Richardnow known as Danny Kirchnerfor another woman.

The Baby Richard case epitomized the American legal system at its worst. It was a sorry story of long judicial delay that made the ultimate decision ever harder on Richard; an unpopular decision that called the legal system's legitimacy into question; and an episode that pitted the judiciary against the political branches of government. Most important, it revealed that traditional American notions of stable families consisting of two married parents raising their own biological children was a simplistic view of modern family life.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Zito, Anthony S. "Baby Richard and Beyond: The Future for Adopted Children." Northern Illinois University Law Review (Summer 1998): 445-79.