TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) – In the waning hours of the 2014 session Friday, Florida lawmakers signed off on bill that could allow a 78-year-old man to finally receive payment for the 21 years he wrongly served in prison after his seven children died of poisoning.
James Joseph Richardson, who was released after then-Gov. Bob Martinez ordered a special investigation, could receive $1.2 million.
Richardson?s seven children died in 1967, in Arcadia, from insecticide placed in their lunch. In 1968, long before DNA testing, he was convicted of one of the deaths and later was nearly executed. Richardson was released in 1989, after Martinez appointed a special prosecutor — then-State Attorney Janet Reno of Miami, later U.S. Attorney General — and his sentence was vacated.
?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,? Richardson said Thursday at the Capitol. ?Sometimes my fellow men have let me down, but God have lift(ed) me up.?
House sponsor Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, said the measure was narrowly tailored, and Richardson, who was a farm worker when his children died, would be the first person to apply under the bill.
If Gov. Rick Scott signs the measure, it would apply to cases in which a governor has appointed a special prosecutor to review the claimant’s conviction; the special prosecutor decides not to pursue charges, a concept known in the legal world as entering a nolle prosequi ; and the claimant was originally convicted and sentenced to death before Jan. 1, 1980.
Under current law, a claimant?s eligibility for compensation is established through a court order that vacates the conviction and sentence as the result of exonerating evidence.
During Richardson?s incarceration, suspicion fell on a babysitter for his children, but she was never charged.
The bill (HB 227) unanimously passed the Senate late Friday, after passing the House unanimously last week. House Speaker Will Weatherford welcomed Richardson, who now lives in Kansas, to the chamber on Thursday.
“There?s no question that anybody could ever imagine the pain that you endured, sir,” Weatherford said. “There?s just no question that we could do that. But what we know how to do is bring justice to the situation and honor to you, and you honor us with your presence.”
The Senate echoed those sentiments.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Richardson was extraordinary for ?the joy he?s found in life with all the bad experiences he?s had.?
?He?s truly humble, with no ill will for anybody for the years he spent behind bars,? added Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Senate sponsor Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said that attitude explains why Richardson plans to spend his compensation, should it come, to build a church.
“He is firmly convinced that God saved him from the electric chair in Florida,” Thompson said after the 38-0 vote.
But despite his ability to forgive, Richardson has never stopped grieving the loss of his children.
“I miss them today, and I would like to see them, if I can, maybe one day in heaven,” he said.
This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.