Baby Richard Trial: 1991-95
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.