Fla. dad convicted 20 years ago for poisoning seven children walks free after baby-sitter said she killed them
James Richardson was wrongfully convicted of 1967 mass-murder case in Arcadia, Fla.
At daybreak on Oct. 25, 1967, Annie Mae Richardson, of Arcadia, Fla., got up to prepare the day’s meals for her husband and seven children. Lunch was rice and beans for the kids and fried chicken for herself and her husband, James.
That mundane morning routine was the start of a 20-year nightmare for James Richardson, the harrowing journey of a poor black man through the justice system of the 1960s South.
By 6:45 a.m., Annie and James were out of the house, heading for the corner where a work truck would pick them up. The older children — Betty, 8, Alice, 7, and Susie, 6 — headed off to school. Four younger kids — Dorreen, 5, Vanessa, 4, Dianne, 3, and James Jr., 2 — stayed with Reese.
That afternoon, a supervisor came to find the Richardsons as they were picking fruit. He told them that one of their children was ill and offered to drive them to the hospital.
When the couple arrived, they were hit with horrible news. Six of the children were dead. The seventh was clinging to life, but would die the next morning. Teachers and the baby-sitter said they had been fine in the morning, but became violently ill after lunch.
Police searched the home five times but found nothing until the next day when Reese and Charlie Smith, the town drunk, pointed out a bag in a shed behind the building. Investigators said it had not been there during their probe the day before.
The bag contained parathion, an insecticide that is as deadly to humans as it is to bugs. It causes the kinds of symptoms that had been exhibited by the Richardson children.
No one was surprised when autopsies found that the children had died of parathion poisoning.
Within a week, James Richardson was arrested. Evidence and motive were both lacking, but that did not stop Sheriff Frank Cline, wrote activist lawyer and author Mark Lane in his book on the case, “Arcadia Revisited.”
Cline made up his mind that Richardson had wiped out his kids for insurance money. The sheriff based his opinion on a visit, the night before, from an insurance salesman named Gerald Purvis.
Purvis had tried to persuade Richardson to take out a family group plan. Richardson was interested, but couldn’t scrape up cash enough — $1.40 — for the premium.
Other than that weak motive (there was no policy in place because he couldn’t pay for the insurance), there was nothing to suggest that Richardson had murdered his children.
The case against him was built on the bag of parathion and the testimony of some unreliable witnesses, including a couple of jailhouse snitches who swore that Richardson had confessed.
His five-day trial for the murder of one of the children ended on May 31, 1968, when an all-white jury found him guilty in about 90 minutes. He was sentenced to the electric chair.
Richardson sat on Death Row until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional and his sentence was commuted to 25 to life.
Then in the mid-1980s, a surprising event revived the case. The baby-sitter, Bessie Reese, by that time an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home, started babbling to her caretakers.
“I killed the children,” she said not once but at least 100 times between 1985 and 1987, according to an affidavit signed by one of her nurses.
Her confession added fuel to the long-held belief that this father did not murder his kids. Lane, who wrote his first book on the case — “Arcadia” — in 1970, had followed it ever since. He argued that the investigation had been sloppy and tainted by the bigotry that was a fact of life in Arcadia.
At the time of the initial investigation, no one bothered to consider that someone else, like the baby-sitter, may have doled out the poison.
Reese, who served the children their lunches that day, had a violent history, which had been suppressed during the trial. “Big Mama,” as she was called, was known for her red-hot temper. She also had two dead husbands in her past.
The first died after eating a stew she had prepared in 1955. She shot the second one because, she said, he came after her. She was sentenced to 20 years but served only four and was out on parole.
Just before the poisoning of the Richardson children, Reese had had a falling out with their dad. The story was that Richardson and Eddie King, Reese’s latest hubby, had gone off to Jacksonville. King never came back, and word had it that he was shacking up with one of Richardson’s cousins.
Despite all of this, no one explored the possibility that Reese had been the poisoner.
After Reese started talking to her nurses, Lane and the media started to lobby hard for a fresh look at the evidence.
In 1989, Janet Reno, who was appointed special prosecutor by Florida’s governor, declared that the trial had been a farce, that important evidence had been suppressed, and that Richardson was “probably wrongfully accused.”
On April 25, 1989, a judge set the conviction aside. A few days later, Richardson walked out of prison, a free man.
Another 25 years would pass before Richardson was awarded compensation, about $1.2 million, for the years that were taken from him.