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Report backs father jailed in poisoning of 7

Physical evidence does not support a conviction for an Arcadia fruit picker imprisoned for 21 years in the fatal poisoning of his seven children, a new report to the governor said.

James Richardson was freed in 1989 after Janet Reno, now attorney general, reviewed the case as a special prosecutor when a key witness recanted and the prosecutor and police were accused of framing the black farm worker.

Reno was asked to re-examine the case after Robert Merkle, a former U.S. attorney, charged her investigation was a "miscarriage of justice." When she left office, the task fell to other prosecutors in her office.

In their report last month, assistant state attorneys Gertrude M. Novicki and Richard L. Shiffrin dispute Merkle's view that Richardson had a clear motive for killing the children: collecting on a new insurance policy.

"In summary, the physical evidence does not establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," the report said.

The new report mentions a potential new witness against Richardson who could lend support to the theory that he killed the children to collect on the policy he signed the night before the mass poisoning.

But the case against Richardson is too weak to expect a conviction, the prosecutors said.

"Whether or not the defendant is guilty of this horrible crime is uncertain," they found. "What is certain is that proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt is lacking."

Richardson has filed a $35-million federal lawsuit against the state and DeSoto County over his conviction and long incarceration.

Merkle, who was hired to help defend against the lawsuit, contends the evidence clearly shows Richardson poisoned a meal of beans, rice and grits Oct. 25, 1967. His supporters implicate the babysitter who served the meal.