There’s no denying that the murder of a child is every parents worst nightmare, but what if you’re then wrongly accused of that child’s murder? Well that very nightmare befell James Joseph Richardson, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of seven of his children.
It was the 25th of October, 1967, when James left his seven children – Betty, 8, Alice, 7, Susie, 6, Doreen, 5, Vanessa, 4, Diane, 3, and James, 2 – in the care of his neighbor, Bessie Reece, while he and his wife went to work. James had met his wife, Annie Mae, in the 1950s and as James said: “I felt weak. I felt in love with her.” The couple moved to Arcadia in Florida in 1966 to “better their conditions.” They both got jobs at an orange grove and worked long hours to provide for their family.
At around midday on that fateful afternoon, the children huddled around a wooden table and feasted on a lunch of hog jowls, grits, beans and rice. Each morning, Annie Mae would cook the children’s lunch and leave it in a pot in the refrigerator. This day was no different. Bessie got the food out of the refrigerator and heated it up for the children. Progressively throughout the day, each child became violently ill. By the next morning, all seven children would be dead.
An autopsy revealed that the children had been poisoned with parathion, a tasteless and odorless pesticide. When somebody ingests parathion, it hits the central nervous system and fills the lungs with fluid, drowning the victim. The Richardsons were called from the orange grove to the hospital. James would later say that a priest came to him and said: “It’s time to pray.” When he asked what for, he replied: “All your children are dead.” James recollected: “I looked around and saw my wife passed out on the floor.”1
Two days after the murders, James was arrested and charged with seven counts of first-degree murder. It was revealed that parathion was discovered on the steps of a shed located behind the apartment complex. Sheriff Cline told the media that of the 20 or 21 children or stepchildren that James had, half were dead. According to James, however, two were stillborn and a third died in infancy. Sheriff Cline also stated that James had failed a polygraph test and that he had planned on taking out $1,000 in insurance on each child. Moreover, two cellmates of James claimed that he had confessed to murdering his children.
During the trial, James denied that he had killed his children and was adamant that he was a loving father who worked hard to provide them with the best life he possibly could. “Nobody could do that to their own children….” he cried on the witness stand. While Bessie had been the one to feed the children, she was not called to testify during trial.
“We didn’t feel she was competent. She’s never been mentally alert.”State Attorney Frank Schaub in regards to Bessie.
During a time when racial segregation was high, an all-white jury believed that there was enough evidence to find James guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death. However, five years later, Florida ruled that the death penalty at the time was unconstitutional and his sentenced was commuted to life in prison.
James remained incarcerated for twenty years; he continued to deny any involvement in the murder of his children.
Then in 1988, lawyer John Richardson took on the case. He filed an affidavit which had been prepared by a nursing assistant who had cared for Bessie several years after the murders. At the time, Bessie was living in a nursing home in Wauchula and was considered to be mentally incompetent. It was revealed that at the time of the murders, Bessie was actually on parole for the murder of her second husband and she had been suspected of murdering her first husband.
The nursing assistant, Belinda Romeo, cared for Bessie from 1985 to 1987 and she revealed to the lawyer that Bessie had confessed to the murders of the children “hundreds of times.” She quoted Bessie as saying: “Yes, I killed those children.” However, when she was pressed for a motivation, she stated: “I don’t know why I did it…” Richardson also presented a second affidavit from a witness who had been present when Bessie confessed and she corroborated Belinda’s story.
Richardson and Mark Lane, a conspiracy lawyer, turned the statements over to the DeSoto County authorities and announced that they were seeking the case to be reopened. They held a town meeting wherein they asked anybody else who may have information regarding the case to come forward. They also accused Sheriff Frank Cline of framing James for the murders and dismissed his award from a detective magazine for solving the crime. Lane stated: “The former chief of police of Arcadia even said that the time Richardson was innocent.”2
State Attorney Frank Schaub responded and said that they would not be reopening the case. He stated that the prosecution knew that Reese essentially killed the children because she had served them the food but said that it was James who murdered them because he had poisoned the food. He stated: “That’s exactly what we proved at trial. She killed the children. She didn’t commit murder, but she killed them.”3
However, further investigation revealed that James’ former cellmate, James Weaver, had come forward to say that he had lied during the murder trial when he said that James had confessed to the murder to him. When he was questioned, he said he wasn’t sure why he had lied. He said that he had drank a quart of wine a day during the past twenty years which had affected his memory. He said that he knew for sure that he had lied on the witness stand.4 Another revelation that was made was that Bessie was annoyed with the Richardsons because her third husband had left her for a relative of theirs.
Then in April of 1989, James Richardson’s conviction was overturned and Circuit Judge Clifton Kelly ordered that he be immediately released. He had found that State Attorney Schaub had withheld crucial evidence which favored James and even pointed towards Bessie as being a suspect; initially, she had claimed she hadn’t been in the apartment and that she hadn’t fed the children. 5
“Within my heart, I knew that these great men were going to get me out – they weren’t going to let me stay in there.”James, as he left prison.
Following his release, James had to acclimatize to a whole new world, a world where he could walk alongside a white woman without fear and a world with new technology and laws. In 1992, Bessie passed away in the nursing home. She had never been fully investigated as a suspect in the murders because she was deemed mentally incompetent.
James filed a lawsuit against DeSoto County for his wrongful conviction and received just $150,000. In 2014, bill HB 227 was signed into law which meant that wrongfully convicted inmates could be granted compensation for time served. It was estimated that James could be awarded up to $1.3 million, however he hasn’t yet received that compensation.
- The Orlando Sentinel, 9 October, 1988 – “Dad Still Denies Poisoning 7 Kids”
- UPI, 12 August, 1988 – “A Lawyer Seeking a New Trial For a Man”
- Sun Sentinel, 17 August, 1988 – “State Won’t Reopen 21 Year Old Case”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 21 January, 1989 – “A Lie, A Theory But No Proof”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 26 April, 1989 – “Richardson Released”