by Reggie Fullwood
“You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,” said Booker T. Washington.
The U.S. justice system has held so many blacks down through improper arrests and convictions; and still to this day, it is still a system rampant with injustice and inequality.
Two years ago, I learned the impossible story of James Joseph Richardson. Perhaps I should use the word improbable, or even unbelievable. Regardless of the synonym used, his story reads like a bad Hollywood storyline. A story so implausible that it couldn’t be true.
In 1967, Richardson’s seven children, ages 2 to 8, died in Arcadia, FL from insecticides placed in their lunch.
Richardson and his wife both worked, so next-door neighbor Betsy Reese babysat the Richardson’s non-school age children. She fed those children and the older ones when they came home from school.
Although Reese was the last adult to handle the plates and food before the children ate it, she was not investigated as a suspect. Instead only the children’s father was immediately considered the prime suspect – even though he had not prepared the food.
He was arrested and later released on bail because of the lack of evidence. Unfortunately, while he was locked up – three prisoners trying to cut a deal with the police came forth and said that Richardson admitted to killing his children for a $500 per child insurance policy.
Of course, it was totally untrue. During the farce of a trial, the jury and judge ignored inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case and compelling evidence that Richardson was the wrong person because the grits had to have been put there after the family ate breakfast – otherwise they all would have been dead before lunch.
To make a long story really short – after shenanigans from the an unfair judge, prosecutors, and bias jury, Richardson was convicted and sent to death row.
Not only was he grieving the loss of his children, but alsohe was faced with spending the rest of this life in jail until he would eventually be put to death via electric chair. There cannot be a worse feeling!
Although he was on death row, Richardson’s attorney and others never gave up on him and eventually uncovered critical evidence.
Among the evidence was proof that Richardson did not purchase life insurance policies on his children the day before their deaths, and there was no insurance on them at the time of their deaths.
This means that the prosecutor deliberately created a non-existent financial motive for Richardson to commit the murders.
Richardson’s attorneys also found prosecutors notes about Reese’s violent criminal background that the defense didn’t know about. In fact, when the Richardson’s children were murdered, Reese was on parole after spending four years in prison for shooting her second husband to death in 1956.
It gets even crazier, Reese was also suspected of murdering her first husband by poisoning him because he mysteriously died after eating a breakfast she had prepared for him.
The concealed documents also suggested a revenge motive for Reese: her third husband abandoned her and became involved with Richardson’s cousin shortly before the children were murdered. Again, this sounds like a bad Hollywood movie.
After appealing to the courts with the newly uncovered evidence, Governor Bob Martinez appointed state attorney Janet Reno (former U.S. Attorney General) as special prosecutor. Richardson was released in 1989.
Malcolm X once said, “You cannot separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace until he has his freedom.”
When politicians put people first it’s amazing the good that can be done. For me, the highlight of last year’s Florida Legislative Session was when Mr. Richardson testified in front of a Senate committee. He said, “I‚ve been wrongly accused, I‚ve been left on Death Row and had one hour to die in the electric chair, and I prayed to fulfill my need.”
He continued, “Sometimes my fellow men have let me down, but God has lifted me up.”
Finally, some 25 years later because of a bill passed by the legislature that is awaiting the Governor’s signature, Richardson may be compensated for the injustice and pure evil committed against him.
When asked what he would do with any award he received from the state, he said that he would use the money to build a church. Enough said.
Signing off from Tallahassee,