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
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