Wednesday, April 25, 2007

April 25

Eighteen years ago today, a migrant fruit picker from Arcadia, Florida named James Joseph Richardson was released from prison in Florida, where he had languished 21 years for seven murders he did not in fact commit. The seven victims were his children and step-children, who succumbed to pesticide poisoning in late October 1967.

Tried and found guilty the following year, Richardson received a sentence of death that was vacated in 1972, when the Supreme Court temporarily invalidated the nation’s capital punishment laws. After the Furman ruling, Richardson’s sentence was altered to 25 years without the possibility for parole. He continued to insist on his innocence, though no one of any importance believed him until 1989, when an investigation by Miami-Dade state attorney Janet Reno concluded that James Joseph Richardson was in all likelihood innocent of all charges.

As it turned out, the lethal doses of parathion were administered by Richardson’s next-door neighbor Betsy Reese, who was babysitting them at the time and had fed them a lunch of rice and beans shortly before they died. Reese was upset that her third husband had forsaken her for one of Richardson’s relatives. At the time, Reese was on parole for shooting and killing her second husband; her first husband had also died under mysterious circumstances after eating a meal she had prepared for him. All of this was apparently known to prosecutors at the time, but charged Richardson instead. To make their case, they accused Richardson of having taken out life insurance policies on his children the day before the deaths. They also insisted that a sack of parathion had been discovered in his shed. Neither allegation was true, though the state also relied on perjured testimony from three men -- jailhouse acquaintances of the accused -- who claimed that Richardson had confessed the crime to them. Each of the three men received an early release.

After Richardson’s conviction was overturned by a circuit court judge in April 1989, the State of Florida did not offer him financial restitution, arguing that he had not filed the proper court documents. According to Richardson’s former attorney, Richardson -- now 70 years old -- is penniless and living in the Midwest.