This Day in Black History: April 25, 1989

James Joseph Richardson is exonerated after 21 years in prison.

Posted: 04/25/2014 12:00 AM EDT

If not for injustice, James Richardson would likely not be a figure in history. But after being wrongfully convicted of killing his seven children and spending 21 years in prison, the Florida fruit picker was exonerated by special prosecutor Janet Reno on April 25, 1989.

On Oct. 25, 1967, Richardson's wife, Annie, had asked neighbor Bessie Reece to serve the children their lunch while she and her husband were at work. Reece laced the beans and rice with an insecticide called parathion that left the children, aged 2 to 11, foaming at the mouth and dead within minutes.

The police suspected Richardson of killing his children after learning that he had met with a life insurance agent with whom he'd discussed getting policies for the entire family. During trial, the jury was not told that it was the salesman who had initiated the meeting or that Richardson could not afford to buy life insurance at all.

The day after the incident, Reece, who babysat the children periodically, told the police that she had seen a bag of the poison in the Richardsons' shed. The jurors also weren't told that she was on parole for the shooting death of her second husband and had been suspected of killing her first with poisoning.

Making matters worse, in exchange for a reduction in their own sentences, three convicts claimed that Richardson, in a jail-house confession to them, claimed that he'd killed the children because his wife had engaged in an affair with Reece.

Richardson was convicted after less than two hours of deliberation and sentenced to the electric chair. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty to be unconstitutional, so Richardson was given a sentence of 25 years to life.

In 1988, lawyers for Richardson, armed with affidavits stating that Reece had confessed her crime to a nursing home employee as well as evidence that prosecutors had suppressed evidence during the trial, Reno was assigned to investigate the case, which led to Richardson's exoneration. He was released from prison on May 5, 1989.

"I will carry the fear to my grave, that an innocent man, James Richardson, might have been executed," Reno said.

Richardson settled a wrongful conviction suit with DeSoto County for $150,000, but a claim against the state of Florida was denied in 2008. If a bill currently making its way through the state's legislature passes, however, he could receive up to $2 million. 

Reece, who died of Alzheimer's, was never indicted.

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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