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Fla. could pay man who spent 2 decades in prison

April 9, 2014
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — More than 40 years after James Richardson was wrongfully convicted of the horrific crime of poisoning his seven children, the state of Florida may finally make amends.

The Florida Legislature is now moving a bill that would result in a payment of slightly more than $1 million to the 78-year-old Richardson — or $50,000 for every year he spent in a prison cell.

"This bill is more than just compensation," said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth. "It signifies the Florida government, the Legislature, saying a mistake was made."

Richardson, a one-time fruit picker who lived in the rural town of Arcadia, was convicted in 1968 of lacing the lunch of his seven children with a powerful insecticide. Authorities at the time insisted he killed his children to obtain a life insurance payment. Richardson, who was black, was prosecuted by a white sheriff and convicted by an all-white jury.

Two decades later questions arose about whether the baby sitter watching Richardson's children that day had actually been the person who poisoned them. Richardson and his wife were working in an orange grove at the time his children ate lunch.

Then-Gov. Bob Martinez asked Miami-Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno to review the case. Reno concluded the investigation was inadequate and she wrote that "obvious leads were never pursued, critical questions were never answered, glaring inconsistencies were never resolved, standard investigative procedures were never followed."

Richardson was freed from prison in April 1989 — more than 21 years after he was convicted. It would be another 19 years until state legislators passed a law that allowed people who were wrongfully incarcerated to apply for payment. Richardson was the first person to apply for a claim, but it was turned down after his request was opposed by the local state attorney.

An administrative law judge concluded that although there was no evidence of his guilt, Richardson failed to provide clear evidence that he was innocent.

Democratic legislators this year are sponsoring a bill that would change the process for compensation in a way so Richardson would qualify for payment. The bill has been moving in the Senate, but it was going nowhere in the House until Tuesday, when a meeting was scheduled at the last minute to consider the legislation.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and chairman of the House Criminal Justice subcommittee, said he had a "change of heart" after talking to Kerner about the bill. Gaetz said he had spent time reviewing Richardson's case and has concluded he was not guilty of the crime.

Kerner has traveled with Richardson to view the graves of his children in Arcadia. He said he decided to sponsor the bill because of his time spent as a police officer in the town of Alachua in north Florida.

"There is a legacy of injustice going way back before I was born," Kerner said.

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