Arcadia and the
Twenty Year Effort to Exonerate James Joseph Richardson
By Hans Sherrer
In the fall of 1967 a nationally reported news story was the sudden
deaths of seven family members, aged 2 to 8, in the small southern
Florida town of Arcadia.
All seven of 31-year-old James Joseph
Richardson’s children and step-children became violently ill-shortly
after eating lunch on October 25, 1967. Within twenty-four hours they
were all dead. Richardson and his wife both worked, so next-door
neighbor Betsy (Bessie) Reese babysat the Richardson’s non-school age
children. She fed those children and the older ones when they came home
from school at noon, a lunch of rice, beans and cheese that had been
prepared early that morning by their mother.
It was believed the
children died from poisoning. A day after their deaths, and after the
Richardson’s house and storage shed had been searched multiple times by
the police looking for any clue to what caused the deaths, Reese
reported to the police that an open bag of the insecticide parathion
had been “found” in the shed by a neighbor, Charlie Smith. The police
came and took the bag as evidence, although oddly it was very damp
while the shed was bone dry.
Tests of the children’s lunch
plates, the leftover bowl of breakfast grits, and other items in the
kitchen revealed the presence of enough parathion to kill everyone in a
Although Reese was the last adult to handle the
plates and food before it was eaten by the children, she was not
investigated as a suspect. Instead only the children’s father was
seriously considered as the poisoner – even though he had not prepared
the food, he had left early that morning for where he and his wife were
working in a citrus grove 15 miles from Arcadia, and he was at work
when told shortly after noon that his children were seriously ill.
law enforcement fanned a sensational media frenzy by pointing the
finger at Richardson and leaking alleged details, and he was soon
arrested on suspicion of committing the murders. Daytona Beach attorney
John Robinson became interested in Richardson’s case, and he and his
partner agreed to represent the lawyerless Richardson pro bono,
although they were civil and not criminal lawyers.
was held without bail, so Robinson decided to file a writ of habeas
corpus to secure his release by forcing the prosecutor to admit there
was zero evidence against Richardson – only speculation. However,
Robinson then made what turned out to be the fateful decision to
approach the prosecutor with the offer that if Richardson was released
on a reasonable bail the habeas wouldn’t be filed. Since there was no
evidence tying Richardson to his children’s deaths, Robinson figured
that once he was released the arrest warrant would be dropped and the
Richardsons would be left alone to grieve. The judge acknowledged the
flimsiness of the case by authorizing Richardson’s release on an
unheard of $7,500 bond in a capital case involving a black man’s
alleged murder of his seven children. The bail bondsman was convinced
enough of Richardson’s innocence that he waived the bail bond fee.
prosecution needed evidence, and sure enough, shortly after
Richardson’s release a prisoner facing criminal charges claimed that
Richardson confessed to him. Richardson’s bail was revoked and two
other prisoners facing charges soon claimed that he also confessed to
them. Curiously, Richardson was only indicted for murdering one of his
children. The three jailhouse witnesses testified at Richardson’s
preliminary hearing after which he was remanded for trial.
indictment was based on his alleged jailhouse confessions. The
prosecution claimed his motive was to collect $500 life insurance on
each of his children from a policy he allegedly bought the day before
their deaths. In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Dr. Sam Sheppard was
entitled to a new trial because of prejudicial publicity, and to avoid
what could have been a likely reversal if Richardson was convicted in
Arcadia, his trial was moved to another county. That didn’t help him
because it prevented him from getting any jurors who knew him or his
reputation in the community and who would have given him a fair shake.
Richardson’s trial began in May 1968, the judge removed fifteen
perspective jurors who were opposed to the death penalty and two who
doubted circumstantial evidence was enough to convict someone of
murder. In contrast with the removal of those possibly open-minded
people, several of the empanelled jurors were former KKK members.
the trial two of the jailhouse informants testified about what
Richardson allegedly told them, and since the third prisoner informant
had died, the sheriff was allowed to provide the hearsay testimony of
what the prisoner told him Richardson had said. That testimony was the
basis of the prosecution’s case, since Reese didn’t testify, Smith
didn’t testify, the insurance agent who allegedly sold Richardson the
life insurance policies didn’t testify, and no one testified that
Richardson bought or was ever seen with the bag of parathion.
didn’t prevent the prosecution during its closing from arguing as if
that testimony had been given, and that was enough for the all-white
jury that had been exposed to months of sensational news stories about
the case. They convicted Richardson of murder after an hour of
deliberations, and recommended that he be sentenced to death – which
the judge did. The jury and judge ignored inconsistencies in the
prosecution’s case and compelling evidence that Richardson was the
wrong person because the parathion in the grits had to have been put
there after the family ate breakfast – otherwise they all would have
been dead before lunch.
The story faded away and when in Florida for a speaking engagement,
attorney and writer Mark Lane’s
curiosity was aroused by comments that there seemed to be
irregularities in the prosecution’s case against Richardson. With a few
days of free time, Lane drove to Arcadia to poke around and see if
Richardson’s case was as open and shut as the media had made it seem to
be. Lane was a bit of a maverick and had a national reputation because
of his 1966 book Rush to Judgment, that challenged the Warren
Commission’s Report about President John F. Kennedy’s murder.
had enough doubts about Richardson’s case that he began an intensive
investigation that evolved into a book that was titled simply Arcadia. Published in January
details how justice worked in the late 1960s for black folk in a
segregated small southern town in which pervasive racism infected all
aspects of everyday life.
Lane intertwines his many interviews and testimony from Richardson’s
trial to demonstrate that among other things: the jailhouse witnesses
almost certainly lied; there was no evidence whatsoever linking
Richardson to the parathion found in the shed or to the insecticide in
his children’s lunch and that was also put in the grits after the
family ate breakfast. The picture Arcadia presents is that Richardson’s
conviction was due to prejudice and unfounded negative publicity that
caused the jurors to assume he was guilty without any actual proof.
Lane ends Arcadia
by recounting his visit to Richardson on Florida’s death row at Raiford
State Prison. The prison was refusing all media interviews, but as a
lawyer Lane was able to see Richardson by accompanying John Robinson as
his co-counsel. During that interview Richardson exclaimed, “I don’t
know who killed my children,” and he talked about the day his children
died and the events that followed. As the two men were leaving,
Richardson earnestly said to Robinson, “I don’t know what you can do. I
know you is trying with your heart, and I thank you for that and for
bring this man [Lane] to see me who I know will try to help me and try
to tell the truth. I thank you for everything.” Robinson replied, “I am
going to get you out of here if I spend every dime I have, if I spend
every hour that is left to me. I swear it, James. You are going to walk
out of that door.” That is where Lane’s book ends, with Richardson
caught in the limbo land between living and dying known as Death Row.
direct appeal was denied in April 1971 and the information Lane
uncovered wasn’t enough for him to get a new trial. But before Florida
was able to execute Richardson the improbable happened – the U.S.
Supreme Court declared in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia that the
procedures used to secure capital convictions and sentences in the U.S.
were unconstitutional. Across the country death row prisoners were
resentenced, and Richardson resentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
So instead of being led to the death chamber Richardson was condemned
to likely die in prison.
True to his word Robinson didn’t forget
about Richardson. In 1980 he hired private investigator Jake Ross to
find some of the witnesses in the Richardson case to see if compelling
new evidence could be discovered. One of the people Ross located was
Charles Smith, who supposedly found the parathion. Ross wrote about his
meeting with Smith:
“Mr. Smith told me that he never
believed James Richardson killed his children. He indicated that Bessie
Reese, a babysitter for the Richardsons, first told him about the
case. At the time of the incident, Charlie saw Bessie standing in
front of her home and asked her what happened. Bessie told him that the
Richardson kids had died from poisoning. Bessie took Charlie to where
the insecticide was located in a shed directly behind the Richardson’s
house. According to Mr. Smith, the insecticide had been opened. Mr.
Smith stated that Bessie went directly to the open bag of parathion and
said to him, “That’s it.”
So Richardson’s jury wasn’t told the
truth, it was Reese who found the insecticide, not Smith. Even more
important, Reese knew before the lab tests that the children died from
parathion poisoning. But that information wasn’t enough to seek a new
Although investigation continued sporadically, the big
break came in late 1986. Nursing-home employee Brenda Frazier had heard
rumors that Reese murdered the Richardson’s children, and she asked
her, “Did you kill those kids, Betsy?” Reese answered, “Yeah, I did
Lane, whose law office was in Washington D.C., learned
about Reese’s confession. He traveled to Florida and obtained
affidavits from Frazier and another nurse who heard Reese’s confession.
It had been almost nineteen years since Arcadia
was published, but armed with the new evidence, in August 1988 Lane
launched a “Free James Richardson” campaign by staging a rally in
Shortly after the rally a man informed Lane and
Robinson that he knew of documents proving Richardson’s innocence. In
looking through the file from the State Attorney’s Office in Arcadia
that was mysteriously provided to them, the two lawyers found a
treasure trove of exculpatory evidence the prosecution had concealed
from Robinson before, during and for two decades after Richardson’s
Among the evidence were transcripts of interviews during
which the two jailhouse informants who testified at Richardson’s trial
gave conflicting accounts of his supposed confession. There was also
evidence that Richardson did not purchase life insurance policies on
his children the day before their deaths, and there was no insurance on
them at the time of their deaths. Which means the prosecutor
deliberately fabricated a non-existent financial motive for Richardson
to commit the murders. There were also the prosecutor’s notes about
Reese’s violent criminal background that the defense didn’t know about,
and which may have been why the prosecution didn’t call her as a
witness. When the Richardson’s children were murdered Reese was on
parole after spending four years in prison for shooting her second
husband to death in 1956. Reese was also suspected of murdering her
first husband by poisoning him because he mysteriously died after
eating a breakfast she had prepared for him. The concealed documents
also suggested a revenge motive for Reese: her third husband abandoned
her and became involved with Richardson’s cousin shortly before the
children were murdered. The concealed evidence about Reese’s background
was consistent with her confession to poisoning the children.
the new evidence in hand, prominent Miami attorney Ellis Rubin agreed
to represent Richardson pro bono. He gained additional evidence when he
questioned James Weaver – the only living jailhouse informant against
Richardson. In an affidavit Weaver admitted that Richardson never
confessed to him.
Armed with the new evidence, on December 15,
1989 Rubin filed with the Florida Supreme Court an “Application For
Permission To File Petition For Writ Of Error Coram Nobis To Circuit
Court.” The petition claimed Richardson was entitled to a new trial
based on the prosecution’s “Knowing use of perjured testimony;
Suppression of evidence by the prosecution so as to constitute fraud;
and Newly discovered evidence.” Although the State didn’t contest the
authenticity of the prosecution files that Richardson’s attorneys had
obtained through unorthodox means, they vigorously opposed the
petition. The State’s Response wasn’t limited by the truth or the facts
of the case. It went so far as to falsely claim that Richardson had a
financial motive to murder his children for the $500 life insurance
policies purchased on each of his children the day before their deaths
– when the prosecution’s own files proved that no such policies were
purchased and there was no insurance on any of the children.
the petition was being litigated, Richardson’s case was once again
national news. People magazine published a feature story on March 6,
1989, “Convicted of murdering one of his children, James Richardson
hopes the truth will set him free.” Under the glare of negative
publicity that the State had condemned to death and imprisoned a man
for more than 20 years who could be innocent, on February 1, 1989
Florida Governor Bob Martinez appointed Dade County State Attorney (and
future Attorney General of the United States) Janet Reno as special
prosecutor to examine the case.
While the coram nobis petition
was pending Richardson’s lawyers filed a motion for a new trial that
the Florida Supreme Court authorized the Circuit Court to hear. With
Special Prosecutor Reno agreeing after several months of reviewing
Richardson’s case that he had suffered a miscarriage of justice, on
April 25, 1989 his conviction and sentence were vacated and he was
granted a new trial. Richardson was released on bail later that day.
The state conceded it had no case to retry Richardson when Reno filed a
thirty-five page nolle prosse memorandum that detailed the state did
not even have enough valid evidence to charge Richardson, much less
convict him. The memorandum concluded, “James Richardson was probably
wrongfully accused.” The murder charge was dismissed on May 5. When
told the news the 53-year-old Richardson exclaimed to reporters, “Now
Ironically, almost two months after Richardson’s
release Florida’s Supreme Court denied his petition for coram nobis,
ruling that it was only proper for a person released from prison, while
a motion for a new trial was the proper remedy for an imprisoned
person. The court noted that its ruling was moot for Richardson because
his conviction had already been vacated.
After his release from
more than 21 years of imprisonment, including four years on death row,
Richardson described the feeling, “'It’s a pleasure to walk on the
beach, see the sunlight, picking up sand and dirt, kicking my feet in
the water.” He would have died without ever again being able to
experience such simple joys of life if it wasn’t for the unrelenting
efforts of Mark Lane and John Robinson.
Although Lane’s book Arcadia
ends in late 1969 with Richardson on death row, in reading it one can
understand the inconsistencies and doubtful nature of the prosecution’s
case that caused both Lane and Robinson to so fervently believe in
Richardson’s innocence and work for twenty years to prove it. Their
faith was vindicated when the prosecution’s concealed files where
miraculously handed to them, and the truth set James Richardson free.
filed a lawsuit against DeSoto County for his wrongful prosecution that
was settled for $150,000. Richardson also sold the movie rights to his
story for $20,000, but the movie was never made. On August 25, 2008
Richardson, who is now 73 and lives in Kansas, filed a claim under
Florida's wrongful conviction compensation law enacted in July 2008.
The law provides for $50,000 per year, so if Richardson prevails he
could be awarded over $1 million.
Mark Lane, Arcadia, Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1970, 287 pages, hardcover (no softcover edition)
(out of print)
James Joseph Richardson vs. State of Florida, 546 So. 2d 1037 (Fla.
Convicted of murdering one of his children, James Richardson hopes the
truth will set him free, People magazine, March 6, 1989.
I’m free,” Richardson says – Man accused of killing children will not
face new trial, St Petersburg Times, May 6, 1989.
A Man Who Loves Challenges, PI Magazine, Spring 1994.
Richardson seeks redress for wrongful incarceration, Venice Gondolier
Sun (Charlotte, FL), September 10, 2008.