John Romano: Bill would atone for man's wrongful conviction

James Richardson, center, leaves the courthouse with stepdaughter Jeanette Stanley and attorney Mark Lane.
James Richardson, center, leaves the courthouse with stepdaughter Jeanette Stanley and attorney Mark Lane.
Published Apr. 8, 2014

His fate was decided swiftly. The jury returned a guilty verdict in 84 minutes. A judge handed down a death sentence 15 minutes after that.

But, for James Richardson, true justice arrived more slowly. He would spend 21 years in prison before his murder conviction was finally thrown out in 1989.

As for an apology?

He's still waiting.

Today, nearly 47 years after the migrant farm worker was seemingly wrongly accused of poisoning his seven young children in Arcadia, the state of Florida may finally get around to offering him some version of atonement.

A state House committee will meet this afternoon to discuss passing a bill written specifically for Richardson, now 77. The bill will allow him to seek compensation ­— as much as $3 million — that he had previously been denied because of a legal technicality.

You see, Florida only allows recompense when a wrongly convicted person proves their innocence. Because it took so long for the state to reconsider the case, witnesses had died and evidence had vanished.

The state was convinced Richardson's conviction was unjust, but there was no new evidence, such as DNA, that absolutely confirmed he did not commit the crime.

In other words, he was still guilty until proven innocent.

Which is precisely how he was treated in 1967.

Richardson and his wife Annie Mae had left their rented home early on the morning of Oct. 25 to pick fruit nearly 15 miles away. Their seven children — between the ages of 2 and 8 — had been left in the care of a neighbor, Betsy Reese.

The oldest children had returned home from school for a meal of rice, peas and grits that had been prepared by Annie Mae the previous night. Within an hour, all seven children were violently ill and by the next morning were all dead. Autopsies determined they had ingested high amounts of insecticide.

Newspaper accounts at the time show the local sheriff immediately focused his attention on Richardson. He was arrested within days of the deaths, and was convicted quickly the following May by an all-white jury.

From the beginning, there were doubts about the sheriff's objectivity. The NAACP asked the governor to assign a special investigator soon after Richardson was arrested, although nothing came of it. A book published in 1970 would raise numerous questions about the investigation.

Still, it was not until the 1980s before Gov. Bob Martinez had the case reopened. Janet Reno, who was then the Miami-Dade state attorney, looked at the original case files and determined there was not enough evidence to bring it to trial, let alone secure a conviction.

Among the problems?

Prosecutors withheld key information from the defense. Jailhouse snitches had been coerced into testifying that Richardson had admitted to the crime in jail. And there were inconsistencies in evidence, including Reese's discovery of the insecticide in a shed where sheriff's deputies had searched repeatedly.

Reese — by then suffering from Alzheimer's — reportedly told workers at her nursing home that she was responsible. Numerous reports over the years suggested she blamed Richardson for her husband leaving her and indicated she was friendly with the sheriff.

At this point, the truth is probably forever lost. All that we know for certain is the state is responsible for a trial that was horribly flawed, and the proposed legislation a chance to right a wrong.

So call it reparations. Call it a final chapter. Call it justice.

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