In 2015

In 2015, the National Registry of Exonerations created a report listing 15,000 defendants who were wrongly convicted of crimes and later exonerated upon proving their innocence. According to the report, 47% of them were African-Americans (Gross, Possley, & Stephens, 2017). The infamous case of James Richardson was brought to limelight 20 years after the wrongful conviction of the defendant. The case of James Richardson was included in Florida’s most ghastly crime cases. James Richardson, a migrant fruit picker, was an African-American residing in Arcadia, Florida, along with his wife Annie Mae Richardson and seven children. On the afternoon of 25th October 1967, the Richardson children were murdered after being poisoned. After investigation and trials, the father was convicted of murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment after the Furman v Georgia case which enacted death penalty as unconstitutional. After 21 years, the James Richardson case was revisited by Dade’s country state attorney, Janet Reno, resulting in his exoneration in 1989.
Overview of the Case
In the small Florida town of Arcadia, seven children belonging to the same family were killed on the afternoon of 25th October in 1967, according to the national news agency. According to the sources, James Richardson and his wife left for work as fruit pickers on the field of oranges, 16 miles away from their home, on the morning of 25th October. Prior to leaving, Anne Mae Richardson prepared food for their children. She cooked a lunch of beans and rice for the children and fried some chicken for herself and her husband, James, using the same pan. Their neighbor, Bessie Reece, was delegated to look after the children while their parents were at work. Four out of seven children were enrolled in school, while the remaining were to stay with the babysitter. Upon lunchtime, they returned home to eat their food presented to them by their neighbor. However, upon returning to their classes, they became violently ill and were immediately escorted to the nearest hospitable by the principle, along with the remaining children. All seven of the children died of poison in the next 24 hours.
A day after the deaths, the Richardson house was searched for clues leading to the cause of the deaths. A bag of insecticide parathion was reported to be found by a neighbor, Charlie Smith, to the police authorities by Reece. The plates of the children were tested which revealed the presence of an enormous amount of parathion, enough to kill the entire town. Reese was ignored as a potential suspect despite the fact that she was the last one to handle the food and the plates eaten by the children. Instead, fingers were pointed towards James Richardson for allegedly poisoning his children in order to secure the money regarding the insurance policy he had purchased on them a night before. However, it was later revealed that it was not true (Sherrer, 2008). Despite zero evidence against James, he was held in prison without bail. After a week, three cellmates verified that Richardson had confessed killing his children. One of the witnesses claimed that Richardson was angry at his wife for having an affair and wanted to start a fresh life with someone new. The insurance card and the witnesses were presented as evidence in the court against James Richardson. On 31st May 1968, James Richardson was convicted of murdering his children and was sentenced to death, a penalty which was reduced to life imprisonment after the enactment of Furman v Georgia decision.
However, the case was again presented in court by Dade’s country state attorney, Janet Reno on the basis of evidence which was suppressed by Sheriff Cline and DeSoto country attorney at the time of the conviction. Reese, residing in a nursing home, later confessed that she had poisoned the children. On 25th April 1989, the conviction of James Richardson was set aside by the Judge.
Investigation and Conviction
James Richardson became a suspect when he revealed the card of an insurance company which listed names of his children and their ages. He explained that he had spoken to an insurance salesman a night before. The state attorney and Sheriff Cline viewed the murder as a motive for insurance money. Upon investigation, it was found that James Richardson did not own enough money to purchase the coverage. Nevertheless, the allegations were made by Schaub that Richardson had killed his children to collect the money from the insurance policy. The allegations, however, were never proved.
Immediately after the deaths of the children, the Richardson house was searched for clues regarding the murder. Despite five continuous searches of the apartment, no sign of poison was detected. However, shortly after, Reese reported to the police that a pack of insecticide parathion was mysteriously found by a neighbor in the shed. The pack of poison was collected as a piece of evidence despite the fact that the present pack was damp in a dry shed.
Reece had the last interaction with the kids prior to their deaths, However, Reece was neither investigated nor held as a suspect. No evidence is present regarding the investigation of Reece’s apartment. It was believed that Sheriff Cline had personal relations with Reece’s daughter. According to the sources, Clint, later after the case, once told a DNA test to clarify that he was not the father of one of the grandchildren of Reece. In addition to that, Reece’s violent criminal background was completely suppressed during the investigation. During the death of the Richardson children, Reece was on parole after spending four years in prison for the murder of her second husband in 1956. In addition to that, Reece was also suspected for allegedly killing her first husband by giving him poison. The criminal background of Reece was voluntarily kept hidden from the defense.
Richardson was tried for lie detector tests. Judge Hordan Hay announced that according to the results of the lie detector tests, Richardson has apparent knowledge of the poisoning. The verdict was declared guilty without any trials.
A civil lawyer, John Robinson, agreed to represent the case of James Richardson. Immediately, new witnesses emerged against Richardson. James Spot Weaver, Earnell Washington, and James Cunningham testified against Richardson. According to the cellmates, Richardson had confessed his crimes of murdering his children. Washington stated that Richardson wanted to get rid of his woman and children and collect the money. He said that Richardson was angry at his wife for having an affair. He wanted to start fresh with his other woman. The three men, who were in jail, were released immediately after their testimony.
Later investigation showed that the three cellmates were forced and brutally beaten to testify against Richardson.
Enough evidence was collected against Richardson to prove him guilty. The only testimonies presented in court were the one made by the cellmates against Richardson, which proved to form the basis of the prosecution case. During the trials, Reece, Smith nor the insurance guy testified that Richardson had killed his children. After an hour of deliberations, Richardson was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by an all-white jury (Johnson, 1988). Richardson was wrongly accused and framed for murder by white lawmen. Richardson made an appeal regarding his conviction and death penalty in 1971 which were ultimately denied due to lack of proper evidence. However, in 1978, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional, and Richardson had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment.
Exoneration
The case of Richardson sparked the curiosity of an attorney and a writer, Mark Lane, in 1970. Lane carried specific doubts regarding the Richardson case. He started an intensive investigation that later evolved into a book titled “Arcadia”. Arcadia shed light on the aspect of Justice in 1960s and the role of racism. In the book Arcadia, Lane presents the picture that Richardson was convicted of murder based on unfounded negative publicity. Richardson was, in fact not proven guilty by any actual evidence.
In 1980, Robinson hired a private investigator, Jake Ross, in order to find the witnesses in the Richardson case. One of the people found were Mr. Smith, who supposedly had found the bag of poison in the shed. According to Mr. Smith, he didn’t technically find the poison. He was led directly to the poison by Bessie Reece. Robinson continued his investigation sporadically.
Reece was later diagnosed with Alzheimer disease and resided in a nursing house. During her stay, she confessed to murdering the Richardson children to a nurse. Affidavits were obtained regarding the confession of Reece for the murder of the children. It was revealed that Reece had hidden motives for killing the Richardson children. Reece’s husband had run away with the cousin of Richardson and Reece, ultimately plotted her revenge against Richardson in the most brutal ways.
The process of exoneration was constantly challenged by the obstacle of lack of evidence. Despite having the confession of Reece, it was extremely difficult to prove the innocence of James Richardson. Additional evidence was gained when John Weaver was questioned regarding the confession of James Richardson.
Richardson case was again opened on the basis of newly found evidence and suppression of evidence from the prosecution in order to constitute fraud. During the trials, the accusation against Richardson was proven wrong. After relentless efforts of Robinson and Lane, the murder charge on Richardson was dismissed on 5th May 1989 and Richardson walk out of prison as a free man (Dieter, 2004).
Compensation
James Richardson filed a lawsuit for his wrongful conviction against DeSoto Country (Press, Richardson Appeal Before High Court, 1970). The lawsuit was settled for $150,000. In addition to that, Richardson sold the movie rights for almost $200,000, however, the movie was not created.
In 2014, the bill was signed by Florida governor Rick Scott which stated that compensation will be provided compensation to the wrongly convicted individuals who were sentenced prior to 31st December 1979. According to the restricted law, Richardson might be the only eligible individual. According to this law, Richardson is to receive over one million dollars, $50,000 for every year he had spent in prison. Richardson is basically the first individual to apply for compensation under the law that awards the wrongly convicted. Until now, he has not received any amount.
Conclusion
A verdict is guilty unless proven otherwise in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, that was not the case with James Richardson. He was claimed guilty in spite of the contradictory evidence. James Richardson struggled for more than 20 years to prove his innocence against the conviction of murder of his children. According to Janet Reno, obvious leads were not perused, critical questions were never asked nor answered and the standard investigation procedure was not followed as well (Cormier, 2009). James Richardson is one of the many wrongly accused defendant in the United States. Wrongful convictions have started to become more visible in the popular media culture. Although, the years or month of freedom cannot be restored for the wrongly convicted, however, compensation can facilitate in many ways. Moreover, compensation can help in restoring the faith in the criminal justice system which was lost by the wrongful conviction.

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