On Oct. 25, 1967, James Joseph Richardson and his wife, Annie Mae, left their home in Arcadia, Florida, for their jobs as fruit pickers in an orange grove. Before they left, Annie Mae told their next-door neighbor and some-time baby sitter, Betsy Reese, to serve their seven children lunch when they came home from school.
After eating the lunch of rice and beans with hog jowl gravy, the children, six girls and one boy ages 2 to 11, went back to school and soon became ill. They foamed at the mouth and shook violently. The children were taken to a nearby hospital, but all but one died within hours. The seventh child died the next day.
Autopsies showed the deaths were caused by parathion, a powerful insecticide that was in the children’s lunch.
Richardson, 31, came under suspicion after he told DeSoto County Sheriff Frank Cline that he had talked to an insurance agent two days earlier to talk about getting $500 policies on each of the children, a $1,000 policy on his wife and a $2,000 policy for himself.
The day after the children became ill, authorities searched Richardson’s residence and nearby buildings, but found nothing. But the next day, Reese—the baby sitter—and another man were seen squabbling over a bag of parathion. They told authorities they found it in Richardson’s shed.
Cline went to a grand jury with the insurance card and the bag of parathion, as well as witnesses who said Richardson had appeared calm and not upset over the deaths. The grand jury returned an indictment for the murder of just one of the children. Richardson was arrested immediately.
A week later, three cell mates told authorities that Richardson had confessed to putting the poison in the children’s food.
At trial, two of the jailhouse informants—both of whom received reductions in their prison sentences for testifying—said that Richardson told them he put the parathion in the food. One said Richardson claimed he was angry at his wife for having a lesbian affair with Reese, the baby sitter—a claim that was never verified.
The third informant had been shot to death prior to the trial, but his statement was read to the jury.
On May 31, 1968, after less than two hours of deliberation, Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida’s electric chair.
Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty as it was being applied as unconstitutional. Richardson’s sentence was commuted to 25 years to life in prison.
In 1988, lawyers for Richardson, including Mark Lane, who had written a book about the case called “Arcadia,” (and later would investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and survive the Jonestown massacre in Guyana) sought a new trial.
The lawyers said they had affidavits saying that Reese, who was living in a nursing home, had confessed to workers there that she had poisoned the children.
Further, Lane said that he had obtained exculpatory evidence that he asserted had been suppressed by Sheriff Cline and DeSoto County State’s Attorney Frank Schaub—a charge both men denied. The only living jailhouse snitch had recanted, saying he had been coerced by a sheriff’s deputy into implicating Richardson.
The documents were turned over to the Florida governor’s office and Dade County State’s Attorney Janet Reno was appointed as a special prosecutor to examine the case.
On April 25, 1989, a judge set aside Richardson’s conviction, ruling that the suppressed evidence had prevented him from getting a fair trial. “The court…finds that if certain evidence had been disclosed to the defense there is a definite probability the outcome of the trial would have been different,” said Judge Clifton Kelly.
Defense attorneys at Richardson’s trial were never told that Richardson had never purchased any life insurance—he didn’t have the money. Also withheld were conflicting statements by two of the jailhouse snitches (one died prior to trial and one died after the trial).
Reno said Reese, who at the time of the crime was on parole for fatally shooting her second husband (her first husband died after eating a meal she prepared for him, but she was not charged), had a motive for inflicting harm on the Richardson family. Reese’s husband had left her for a cousin of Richardson, Reno said.
Richardson was released from prison and on May 5, 1989, Reno announced the dismissal of the case.
Richardson later filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against DeSoto County that was settled for $150,000 and in 2008, he filed a claim seeking compensation from the state of Florida, but was denied.
Reese, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, died in 1992. She was never indicted for the crime.
- Maurice Possley