TALLAHASSEE - Forty-six years after James Richardson was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the poisoning deaths of his seven children, and 21 years after he was freed, he is finally eligible for compensation from Florida for his time behind bars.
Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill (HB 227) into law that makes inmates in Richardson’s situation eligible for state compensation. The group is so narrowly defined by the law that Richardson may be the only former inmate affected.
Now 78 and living in Wichita, Kan., Richardson is expected to be eligible for $1.2 million.
“Today the restoration of James Jones Richardson’s rights begins,” said Richard Pinsky, the public policy manager for the Ackerman law firm, which volunteered to represent Richardson. Pinsky said he has been trying to reach Richardson with the news. “I know he is going to be very happy.”
Passed in the closing hours of this spring’s legislative session, the law provides compensation to a wrongfully incarcerated person who was convicted and sentenced before Dec. 31, 1979, and who is exempt from other state provisions for compensation because his case was reversed by a special prosecutor’s review rather than being overturned by a court.
Richardson was a farmworker in the DeSoto County town of Arcadia when he was accused of poisoning his seven children with insecticide after they came home from school for a lunch of rice, beans and cheese. It was just a few days before Halloween in 1967.
He was convicted in 1968 and spent 21 years in prison, including four on death row, before Gov. Bob Martinez ordered a special investigation in 1989. Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno, later a U.S. attorney general, concluded Richardson’s conviction was built on perjured testimony, concealed records and a failure to investigate evidence that a neighbor woman who babysat the children had killed them, and Reno issued a no-file, or nolle prosequi, in his case.
For years lawyers and some lawmakers have been trying to get restitution for Richardson. Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, took up the cause last year and filed this year’s bill after being contacted by advocates at the Ackerman firm.
“It’s pretty emotional, I think, for all the people involved over many years,” said Kerner after learning the governor had signed the bill. “It’s something you can look back on and say you did something.”
Exactly how long it will take before Richardson sees any money isn’t known. However, Pinsky said the process of submitting an application to the Department of Legal Affairs for Richardson “will begin immediately.”
Although Richardson was freed 25 years ago, he said the pain of his loss lingers. So do the nightmares stemming from his years behind bars.
Richardson told The Palm Beach Post in Tallahassee this spring, “There’s not enough money in the whole world that can help me with the situation I’ve been through. Money is no good. Life is better than money.”