Last week’s case was an unsolved murder over a century old, the 1911 death of Dr. Helene Knabe. This week we look at a case “solved” by sending the wrong man to prison. James Richardson served 21 years in a Florida prison for murdering his children, but he didn’t do it.
James Richardson and the Deaths of His Children
Annie Mae and James Richardson were African American migrant farm workers. In October 1967, the Richardsons and their seven children, all under ten, lived in Arcadia, Florida. Two of the children were from Annie Mae’s previous marriage. James was the father of the other five.
On October 24, Annie Mae prepared a meal of beans, rice, and grits for the children’s lunch the next day. The following morning, James and Annie Mae left to pick oranges in groves sixteen miles away. They entrusted the care of their younger children (the oldest four were in school) to a neighbor, Bessie Reece.
At lunchtime, the four oldest Richardson children returned home for lunch. They and their younger siblings ate the meal Annie Mae had prepared. Back at school, their teachers noticed all four exhibiting strange symptoms. The school’s principal immediately took them to a hospital. One of the teachers checked on the remaining three children, discovered they were sick, too, and rushed them to a hospital. It was no use. Six of the children died before authorities could summon the Richardsons from the orange groves. Three-year-old Dianne succumbed the next day.
James Richardson, Murderer?
Investigators soon discovered the pesticide parathion in the food Annie Mae prepared for the children’s lunch. Sure enough, they found a two-pound sack of parathion in a shed behind the apartment building where the Richardsons lived. It surprised no one when a grand jury indicted James Richardson for murder on November 2.
During Richardson’s trial, the state contended that Richardson killed his children for insurance money. Prosecutor John Treadwell introduced evidence that Richardson met with insurance salesman George Purvis to discuss life insurance for the children before the murders. That much was true. What Treadwell didn’t say, though, was that Purvis initiated the meeting. Nor did he say that Richardson hadn’t bought any insurance because he couldn’t afford the premiums.
Other testimony from former cellmates claimed Richardson had confessed the murders to them. DeSoto County Sheriff Frank Cline provided additional sensational testimony when he claimed Richardson had poisoned six other children in another county. Although unsubstantiated, the defense apparently let this accusation pass unchallenged.
The outcome of the trial was never in doubt. On May 31, 1968, jurors took only thirty minutes to return with a guilty verdict and a recommended sentence of death in Florida’s electric chair.
James Richardson Exonerated
For nearly five years, James Richardson sat on Florida’s Death Row. Then, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as it was then implemented, was unconstitutional. Like other death row inmates, the State of Florida resentenced him to life in prison. In Richardson’s case, he had an opportunity for parole starting in 1993.
Over time, the case against James Richardson began to unravel. Investigators overlooked possible clues in their zeal to convict him. For example, at the time of the murders, Bessie Reece was on parole for the poisoning death of her ex-husband. Prosecutors went to great lengths to keep this fact away from the jury.
Another hole in the case against Richardson appeared when the last surviving jailhouse snitch who testified at the trial recanted. He revealed he’d been offered a lighter sentence for his testimony.
Lawyers for Richardson continued to uncover additional evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. On April 25, 1989, their efforts paid off when DeSoto County Circuit Court Judge Clifton Kelly dismissed Richardson’s conviction and released him to the custody of his attorneys.
Who Killed the Richardson Children?
Authorities never charged anyone else with the deaths of Betty, Alice, Susie, Dorreen, Vanessa, James Jr., and Dianne Richardson. The question remains, who killed them?
The most likely suspect is the woman who fed the children the poisoned lunch, Bessie Reece. As noted above, Reece was convicted of murdering her second ex-husband with poison. She was also a suspect in the death of her first ex-husband. Furthermore, In 1988 and living in a nursing home, Reece allegedly confessed to the murders multiple times. At the time, though, she suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s, and no one took her confessions seriously.
Richardson’s life after prison held many challenges. He suffered from numerous heart ailments, for which he blamed poor-quality prison food and stress. He and Annie Mae had remained married all the while he was incarcerated but eventually divorced.
In 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that bypassed the roadblock that had denied Richardson compensation up to then. In 2016, he began receiving payments totaling $50,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned.
Bessie Reece died from Alzheimer’s in a Florida nursing home in 1992. She never faced charges in the deaths of the Richardson children.
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