James Richardson

DeSoto County, Florida
Date of Crime:  October 25, 1967

James Joseph Richardson, a farm worker, was convicted of murdering his oldest child after all seven of his children were poisoned with the pesticide parathion. The children, six daughters and a son, ranged in age from 2 to 8. Richardson was believed to have murdered all seven, but for strategic reasons was only tried for the murder of one. If he had been acquitted, he could have been tried successively for murders of each of the others, giving the prosecution seven chances of a conviction. Richardson was sentenced to death.

The prosecution claimed that Richardson had purchased life insurance policies on his children the evening before their deaths. The sheriff testified that Richardson had shown him an insurance receipt. Police officers testified that they found a sack of parathion in Richardson's shed. Additionally two jailhouse informants testified that they heard Richardson incriminate himself. Richardson's volunteer lawyer was inexperienced in criminal cases and did little more than present witnesses who testified to his client's good character.

Following the conviction, a defense investigation revealed that Richardson never bought life insurance for his children. An insurance salesman had merely stopped uninvited the evening before the deaths and left his business card. Three police searches of his home and shed turned up no evidence of parathion. However, a neighbor, Betsy Reese, “found” parathion in Richardson's shed following the police searches. On the day of the children's deaths, Betsy Reese babysat Richardson's younger non-school age children, and had fed his older children when they stopped home from school to eat lunch.

Richardson and his wife had prepared breakfast for the children that morning and both left for work before the children got up. They picked fruit miles away and did not have their own transportation. Parathion was found on the breakfast plates and in the grits pot used to serve breakfast. However, none of the children showed signs of poisoning until immediately after they returned to school following lunch. Years later, a woman, who as a child shared meals with the Richardson children, testified that she ate breakfast at the Richardsons that morning with no ill effects. When she came in for lunch, she said, Betsy Reese shoved her away.

Reese had been suspected of poisoning her first husband. She shot her second husband to death, apparently due to jealousy. She served four years in prison for the murder and was still on parole at the time of the children's deaths. After a visit by Richardson's sister-in-law, Reese's third husband accompanied the sister-in-law on her return home to Jacksonville. When he did not return, Reese, who lived next door, was apparently upset and stopped visiting the Richardsons. Reese resumed her visits just days before the children's deaths.

Years later while Reese was living in a nursing home, she confessed to killing the children, but the prosecution discounted her confession as due to her senility. Two of her nurses deposed that when Reese was still lucid, she told them more than one hundred times that she had put poison in the children's food. A prison informant who had testified that Richardson incriminated himself later testified that he had lied because a deputy sheriff had threatened to beat him if he refused.

Not everyone initially believed that Richardson had killed his children. One person who was sure he hadn't was noted Washington lawyer and author Mark Lane, who wrote a 1970 book about the case entitled Arcadia. Another was an Arcadia resident who stole the state's case file while he was dating the prosecutor's secretary. Due to fear of prosecution, this file was kept hidden for years, but in 1989, through Lane's intervention, it was turned over to authorities.

The file revealed extensive exculpatory evidence that was withheld from the defense. In response, the Dade County State Attorney, Janet Reno, was named special prosecutor to examine the case. Based on her conclusions that a grave injustice had been done, charges were dropped against Richardson and he was released in 1989. Richardson was awarded $150,000 for his wrongful imprisonment by DeSoto County. He also received $20,000 for the movie rights to his story, but a movie was never made.  [1/09]

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References:  Until You Are Dead..., Patrick Crusade, Florida Commission on Capital Cases

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Central Florida Cases, Mass Murder Cases, Son/Daughter Murder Cases, Favorite Case Stories