The Wrongful Conviction of James Joseph Richardson

In 1967, an African American man named James Joseph Richardson lived with his wife Annie Mae in Florida with their seven children – six girls and one boy between the ages of 2 and 11. They were not a wealthy family and both parents worked at an orange grove picking fruit whilst the children were at school. A neighbour, Betsy Reece, would sometimes help with the childcare.

On October 25th 1967, Betsy Reece was asked to get lunch for the seven children as both parents were at work. A standard meal for a working class family in Southern America at the time was rice and beans, after which the children went back to school. This is when the day turned from a normal day for the household, to a tragic one.

Throughout the afternoon all seven of the children fell ill at school – symptoms included foaming at the mouth and convulsing – six of the seven dying before the end of the day. The seventh child died in hospital the next day. The hospital determined that all the deaths were caused by a highly toxic chemical called parathion that’s used in insect repellents that was in the children’s lunch.

James Joseph Richardson came under suspicion because not long before this tragic day, he had been looking to take out life insurance policies on his family. This suspicion grew when Betsy Reece was seen with a bag of parathion that she claimed to have found in Richardson’s garden shed. His guilt was further compounded by statements that he seemed calm and unphased by the deaths of his children, and he was arrested fairly quickly.

Richardson was briefly released on bail, until three men also serving time gave statements that Richardson had confessed his crimes to them whilst in prison. Two of these men later testified at his trial and had their sentences reduced in reward, the third was shot before the trail, but his statement was read out. There was also an unsubstantiated claim of a lesbian affair between his wife Annie Mae and Betsy the babysitter over which Richardson was said to be infuriated, however this was never corroborated or confirmed (law.umich.edu).

In May 1968 before the trial began, the presiding judge made some changes to the jury, removing fifteen people who were against the death penalty and ensuring he had an all white jury that included three members of the KKK who had seen months of sensational newspaper articles convinced of Richardson’s guilt (justicedenied.com). Unsurprisingly after only an hour and bit of deliberation Richardson was convicted of the murder of all seven of his children, and sentenced to death. The death penalty has always been a topic of debate and changing laws over the years and, four years into his sentence, the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. Richardson’s sentence was changed to life in prison instead.

Unfortunately for Richardson, there was key information not presented at his trial by his defence attorneys that may well have changed the outcome of the case: for example, he enquired about life insurance policies but was too poor to actually buy any ruling out the motivation of financial gain. Furthermore, Betsy was out on bail for the murder of her second husband at the time of the killings, whilst her first husband had died after eating a meal Betsy prepared. It was said that Betsy might have a grudge to bear with the Richardson family as another of her husbands had left her for Joseph’s cousin.

In 1988, Richardson’s new lawyers requested a new trial. By this point, Betsy was living in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and the lawyers had a signed affidavit from the staff member Brenda Frazier that Betsy confessed to the deaths of the Richardson children. Of the three inmates who gave statements that Richardson had confessed before the trial, only one named James Weaver was still alive, but he said that his statement had been forced by a sheriff’s deputy and no such confession ever happened.

The new judge decided that Richardson hadn’t been given a fair trial, dismissed the case and released him on May 5th 1989 – 22 years after the death of his children. No further proceedings were taken against Betsy, who died in 1992.

Richardson was rewarded $150,000 in a wrongful conviction lawsuit against DeSoto County, however he didn’t win a compensation claim he made against the state of Florida. In 2014, Rick Scott (Florida’s then Governor) authorised over $1 million be paid to Richardson for his ordeal. Whilst this gesture will certainly make his remaining years easier, I’m sure he’d rather be with his children.

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