ARCADIA, Fla. — Seven children poisoned by insecticide. Their father charged with murder.
A white sheriff and a white prosecutor who, the story goes, framed a poor black fruit picker and brought shame to this town.
All those lawyers making a show at the trial and all those reporters asking questions about Arcadia, a small town in southwest Florida, that no one wanted to answer.
Nobody talks much about James Joseph Richardson or those seven dead children anymore. It all happened more than 40 years ago, and just about anybody who had anything to do with it has died or moved on.
But suspicion lingers about Richardson, even after it was proven that the murder case against him was built on lies. Some still wonder whether it was Richardson who poisoned the children’s lunch in October 1967 and finessed the legal system to avoid the punishment he deserved.
And now, the case that underscored the upheaval of the civil rights era in this small town is back in court.
Richardson is the first person to apply for a settlement under a new Florida law that awards money to the wrongly convicted.
Jailed for more than two decades, he stands to gain more than $1 million — $50,000 for every year he spent in prison.
Opposing him, just as they did in 1967 and 1989, when he was set free, are prosecutors with the State Attorney’s Office. They are pointing to a provision in the new law that says the wrongly convicted must prove their own innocence to receive a payment.
It is nearly an impossible standard, especially in a case this old. Evidence was destroyed years ago and most of the witnesses are now dead.
Richardson’s lawyer, Robert Barrar Jr., wonders: “How do you prove a negative? How do you prove that something didn’t happen?”
You can start with the babysitter.
Betsy Reese was known around Arcadia as “Big Mama,” a large and curt woman rumored to have close ties to then-Sheriff Frank Cline. She was known for a short temper and raging jealousy.
Before she moved to Arcadia, she had been married twice. She shot and killed her first husband, and always said her second husband’s death was related to stomach ulcers. Years after that, Reese remarried, moved to Arcadia and lived in a home next door to the Richardsons. When James Richardson and his wife, Annie Mae, went to the fields each morning to pick fruit, Reese watched over their children.
In late 1967, Reese and Richardson were on bad terms. Reese’s husband had gone on a trip to Jacksonville with James Richardson and did not come back.
Reese thought her husband was with another woman and blamed Richardson. The falling out simmered for weeks, but Reese was again babysitting the Richardson children by October.
On the morning of Oct. 25, Annie Mae Richardson awoke at 6 a.m., as she normally did, to fix a meal.
She made hogshead, rice and beans for the children’s lunch and stored it in the icebox. Annie Mae used the same frying pan to cook chicken for herself and Richardson.
The oldest children went to school and the younger ones went to Reese’s house. Richardson and his wife went to work, 14 miles away, in an orange grove.
At lunchtime, Reese brought the schoolchildren home and divided the hogshead, rice and beans into seven portions.
The children ate and the oldest went back to school.
In a few hours, the youngsters were convulsing and vomiting. They died at the hospital.
Sheriff Frank Cline was immediately suspicious of Richardson. He met Richardson at the hospital, took a key and searched the family’s home. Cline and other deputies took pots, pans and cooking utensils. They looked in a back shed, hoping to find the poison used to kill the children.
Cline did not investigate anyone else, and even told reporters that Richardson once poisoned his own child in Jacksonville, which was not true.
And he ignored Reese as a suspect.
The poison did not surface until Reese led a neighbor, Charlie Smith, back to the Richardson home. By then, deputies had been through the home five times.
But Reese told Smith to look in the shed, where he found half a bag of parathion, an insecticide that killed the children. The discovery led to Richardson’s arrest. He was charged with murder a week after his children died.
Two months later, Reese admitted she was the one who served the children’s final meal, something she had denied when she was first questioned.
Cline and prosecutors said Richardson killed the children to win a life insurance payout.
The night before the children died, a traveling insurance salesman, Gerald Purvis, saw a light on in the Richardson home and stopped to visit.
Richardson told the salesman he wanted insurance but could not afford the $1.40 premium. So Purvis told Richardson he would come back a few days later for the money.
The insurance payment was a motive, Cline said.
At the trial, prosecutors built their case through prisoners at the county jail, using poor blacks held on minor charges — public drunkenness, for one — to snitch on the accused murderer.
Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death, although some jurors acknowledged that the evidence was shaky.
For 20 years, Richardson’s lawyer tried, and failed, to have him released from prison. They got their break in 1988.
Betsy Reese, in a nursing home, was crying uncontrollably. A nurse asked her what was wrong.
“I killed the children,” Reese said.
Prosecutors say she was only expressing grief for serving the tainted meal. Richardson’s supporters called the statement a confession.
New evidence slowly trickled out, including documents that showed how sheriff’s deputies had mishandled key witnesses. Janet Reno, then the chief prosecutor in Miami, issued a stinging rebuke of the DeSoto sheriff and local prosecutors.
“A totally inadequate and incomplete investigation was conducted,” Reno wrote. “Obvious leads were never pursued, critical questions were never answered, glaring inconsistencies were never resolved, standard investigative procedures were never followed.”
Richardson was freed on April 25, 1989 — after 21 years behind bars.
Now in ill health, he lives with friends in Missouri and has not spoken publicly about the case in two decades.
Cline has not spoken publicly about the case in many years. No longer sheriff, he still lives in a brick house on the outskirts of town, recovering from recent surgery. He believes that Richardson got away with murder, and that the town’s reputation — and his own — were damaged by allegations that a black man had been framed.
“I don’t talk about it much anymore,” Cline said one recent afternoon, on his front porch. “That was a long time ago.”
But many questions linger.
• What about Reese, who seemed to confess on her deathbed? “She was saying that she killed them because she served the meal,” Cline said. “The woman passed three lie detector tests.”
• What about the insurance, the motive that was later refuted? “In those days, it was the custom for the salesman to pay the premium out of his own pocket and come back later to pick it up. That’s what Purvis did.”
• What about the jailhouse snitches, who said that they were beaten until they testified? “They were lying.”
• And what of Richardson’s attempt to win a settlement from the state, to finally prove that he did not kill his own children? “No, he doesn’t deserve it. Richardson is guilty as sin.”
Behind him, in the doorway of his home, Cline’s wife gently tells her husband to come inside.
Cline is polite but resolute. He shuts the door. Like many others in Arcadia, he can only speak about this case for so long.
(The Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune)
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