Mother fighting to clear her name

WAKE COUNTY Nicole Richards spent a year in jail facing involuntary manslaughter charges for a crime she says never happened. She blames her baby's tragic death on a health issue.

From the time Autumn Rose was born, Richards says she had to be a fighter. Autumn was born two months premature and struggled with health problems until her death.

In October 2009, Richards was visiting a friend last fall at an Apex apartment complex when 3-month-old Autumn Rose, the youngest of Richards' four children, fell asleep. Richards says she laid the baby on a bed, surrounded by pillows.

"I left the door cracked, so that I could hear her, left the room -- maybe 10 minutes max -- and when I came back she had stopped breathing," Richards said.

Trained in infant CPR because of the baby's health issues, Richards says she tried to revive her until paramedics arrived.

"We responded to a call of an infant who was not breathing at an apartment here in Apex," Apex Police Capt. Ann Stephens said.

But, Autumn Rose would not survive.

"(Richards) knew the outcome if she put her child on her stomach," Stephens said. "She knew this could be deadly to this child."

Police say witness information eventually led them to charge Richards with involuntary manslaughter. However, Richards says it's just not true.

"I can't sit there and let things go without letting people know the whole situation," she said.

Richards says her daughter was face up on her back contrary to what a friend of her friend who was there that night told police.

"She wasn't even in the room when I laid Autumn down, she was behind me," Richards said. "She wasn't in the doorway."

Richards says she knew the risks that Autumn Rose had a heart condition and suffered from hyperthyroidism.

"I never ever, not even once, laid her down on her stomach unless I was with her," she said.

Richards says not only was she robbed of her little girl, but also of her time to grieve. While holding her baby's lifeless body, she says, she signed forms requesting an autopsy to get answers.

Days later at a hospital chapel memorial for her little girl, officers showed up to arrest her.

"They arrested me before they had any real evidence. A statement isn't real evidence," Richards said.

According to Richards, Autumn Rose had stopped breathing twice before in her brief life.

An autopsy obtained by ABC11 Eyewitness News says the medical examiner could neither determine the cause of death, nor rule out the chance it was a tragic case of SIDS or the baby's ongoing health issues.

However, Apex Police say there's other evidence.

"There were text messages that were later discovered," Stephens said. "She obviously intentionally laid this child on her stomach and knew the potential outcome of doing that which is why it wasn't a child abuse charge or a child neglect charge."

But Richards says she did not kill her daughter.

"No, I would've never," she said. "I would've ended my own life before I would've ended hers."

But Richards' concern for her own life is the reason why she's out of jail. Despite her claims of innocence, she recently pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Richards says she had to enter the guilty plea, because after 13 months in jail awaiting trial, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

"If I waited up to another year to go to trial and got the not guilty, then there was the possibility it would be too far advanced to do anything about," she said.

And with her other two kids being taken care of by family, she says she had to act now to get out and fight her cancer, as well as her criminal record.

Richards says she's hiring an attorney to get her guilty plea overturned. She says her inspiration is her daughter.

"When I saw her fight as well as she did that made me want to fight that much harder," Richards said. "There was no way in the world that I would've hurt her ... there's not. It's not even a remote possibility."

Richards' tells ABC11 she's been told getting her plea overturned is a long shot, but one she's willing to try.

Right now, Richards doesn't have any of her kids. Two of her sons live with relatives and another son lives with a relative out of state. She lost custody of her other two sons after Autumn Rose died and she was arrested.

Social Services got involved with Richards after one of her son's suffered from colic as a baby. She claims there were never any allegations of abuse of neglect brought against her. But, that Wake DSS felt she couldn't provide her son with adequate care, so she willingly sent him to live with relatives.

Wake DSS did not return ABC11's calls Tuesday to confirm or deny Richards' story.

Richards says she'll have a supervised visits with her children this week for the first time since she's been out of jail.

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