The Commission on Capital Cases was not funded in the FY 2011-2012 General Appropriations Act, and the Commission ceased operations on June 30, 2011. This site and the Commission website are being retained to provide access to historical materials.

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These actions are effective July 1, 2011.

Disclaimer: The Commission on Capital Cases receives this information from a variety of sources. The site will be updated consistently as information is received and will be audited bi-annually. We make every attempt to ensure the accuracy of the information provided; however, the information should be verified by the applicable court prior to using it for legal or statistical purposes.


Last NameFirst NamePictureDC NumberAgencyCase Summary
RichardsonJames Joseph 021377 Case Summary

Last Action

DateCourtCase NumberLast Action
5/2/1989  Released

Current Attorney


Last Updated

2008-01-09 11:43:13.0

Case Summary
Direct Links

The Commission on Capital Cases has complied this report using a varietyof sources

RICHARDSON, James Joseph (B/M)

DC # 021377

DOB:  12/26/35                  


Twelfth Judicial Circuit, DeSoto County, Case # 3302-D

Sentencing Judge:  The Honorable John Justice

Attorneys, Criminal Trial:  John Spencer Robinson, Esq.& Richard S. Whitson, Esq.   

Attorney, Direct Appeal:  John Spencer Robinson, Esq. 


Date of Offense:         10/25/67

Date of Sentence:       05/31/68   


Circumstances of Offense:


James Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death forthe 10/25/67 poisoning of his stepdaughter Betty Jean Bryant. 


Evidence presented at trial revealed that Betty Jean Bryantand her six siblings were poisoned with a large amount of parathion.  On theday in question, the children had returned home from school in order to eatlunch.  Their parents were miles away at work picking fruit.  It was determinedthat parathion poison had been placed in every container that the childrenmight have eaten lunch from.  Upon returning to school after lunch, teachersreported that the children immediately began showing symptoms of distress andwere taken to the hospital.


James Richardson and his wife, Annie Mae Richardson, werealerted to their children’s conditions and taken to the hospital where theywere receiving treatment.  Upon learning that the children were dying as aresult of something they ingested, Sheriff Frank Cline of the DeSoto Sheriff’sDepartment rushed to the Richardson home for the purpose of identifying theconsumed toxin.  Sheriff Cline searched the home, with the permission of JamesRichardson, in the hope that identifying the poison may help doctors save thechildren’s lives.  Nothing was seized from the home at that time.  SheriffCline then returned to the hospital to inform Richardson that he would like tosearch the refrigerator, which was locked.  Richardson gave Sheriff Cline thekeys to the refrigerator, which he kept around his neck, and “invited” him tomake a thorough search of the house.  At that time, there was never anysuspicion that a crime had been committed or that Richardson was involved inany way.  Upon returning to the Richardson home, Sheriff Cline located andremoved the poisoned food and containers that the children ate from.


Sheriff Cline subsequently searched the Richardson home onseveral occasions with the voluntary consent of James Richardson.  Richardson even helped once.  Several articles were taken from the home to be analyzed bytoxicology experts, but there was still no reason to suspect that the childrenhad been purposefully poisoned.  Upon learning that Richardson had acquiredlife insurance policies on each of his children the day before theirpoisonings, a search warrant was secured for subsequent searches of the Richardson home. 

James Richardson was eventually arrested and charged withthe poisoning death of Betty Jean Bryant.  At trial, the State presented thetestimony of several jail inmates who claimed that Richardson admitted tokilling his children.  One inmate, Ernell Washington, testified at thepreliminary hearing that he heard Richardson confess to poisoning his childrento calm problems arising between his wife and her ex-husband.  Ernell Washington was murdered prior to testifying at Richardson’s trial.  At that time, there wasno official record of Washington’s testimony from the preliminary hearing.  Assuch, several persons, all of whom were present at the preliminary hearing,testified as to the statements made by Washington during that hearing.


There was strong suspicion that Betsy Reese, the Richardson’s neighbor and occasional babysitter, was responsible for the poisoning deathsof the Richardson children.  Evidence indicated that Betsy Reese prepared thelunch that resulted in the children’s deaths, and she was the last person tocome in contact with the children before the poison took hold.  Betsy Reese,however, was never charged in the investigation of the poisoning deaths of the Richardson children.


James Richardson was convicted of First Degree Murder andsentenced to death.


Trial Summary:


12/05/67          The defendant was indicted on thefollowing:

                                    Count I:  First-DegreeMurder

03/29/68          Motion for change of venue granted andtrial moved to Lee County.

05/31/68          The defendant was found guilty of First-Degree Murder, as charged in theindictment.

05/31/68          A majority of the jury did not recommend mercy.

05/31/68          The defendant was sentenced as followed:

                                    CountI:  First-Degree Murder – Death


Appeal Summary:


Florida Supreme Court, Direct Appeal

FSC # 38,003

247 So. 2d 296


09/17/68          Appeal filed.

04/21/71          FSC affirmed the conviction and sentence of death.


Florida Supreme Court, Petition forWrit of Error Coram Nobis

FSC # 73,435

546 So. 2d 1037


12/15/88          Petition filed.

06/26/89          FSC denied Richardson’s petition with leave to file a Motion to VacateJudgment and Sentence (3.850) in the State Circuit Court

09/08/89          Rehearing denied.




Richardson filed a Direct Appeal in the Florida SupremeCourt on 09/17/68.  In that appeal, he argued that the trial court erred inrefusing to grant his motion to suppress evidence seized from his home.  Richardson asserted that Sheriff Cline should have informed him of his constitutionalrights prior to conducting a search of his home.  The Florida Supreme Courtresponded, “The initial searches of the premises were made for the purpose ofaiding doctors to save the children’s lives and before the defendant became asuspect.  Furthermore, the initial searches were made with the defendant’sconsent and subsequent searches with a search warrant.”  Richardson furthercontended that the trial court erred in allowing several persons testify as totheir recollection of Ernell Washington’s testimony at the preliminaryhearing.  In their opinion, the Florida Supreme Court cited the “formertestimony” exception to the hearsay rule, which allows a third party to relaywitness testimony given under oath in any proceeding where the defendant wasrepresented by counsel and had the opportunity to confront the witness.  TheFlorida Supreme Court also noted that Ernell Washington’s testimony that Richardson confessed to killing his children was further supported by the testimony ofseveral other inmates at the Arcadia jail.  The Florida Supreme Court found nomerit in Richardson’s appeal, and as such, they affirmed the conviction andsentence of death on 04/21/71.


Richardson’s death sentence was converted to lifeimprisonment without the possibility of parole for 25 years, as dictated by theUnited States Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S.238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33L. Ed. 2d 346 (1972)).


Twenty years after his original conviction, Richardson filed a petition for Writ of Error Coram Nobis in the Florida Supreme Court.  Inthat petition, Richardson alleged newly discovered evidence including perjury,evidence suppression and witness recantation.  In response, the Florida SupremeCourt noted that an appellant seeking a new trial would traditionally apply tothe appellate court with leave to petition the trial court for a Writ of ErrorCoram Nobis.  However, the establishment of Criminal Rule of Procedure 3.850replaced the need to petition the appellate court for Writ of Error CoramNobis, streamlining the process by allowing an appellant to file a 3.850 Motiondirectly in the State Circuit Court.  As such, on 06/29/89 the Florida Supreme Court denied Richardson’s Petition for Writ of Error Coram Nobis with leave tofile a 3.850 Motion in the State Circuit Court. 


While Richardson’s Petition for Writ of Error Coram Nobiswas pending in the Florida Supreme Court, Richardson filed a Motion to VacateJudgment and Sentence (3.850) in the State Circuit Court.  The Attorney Generalfiled a motion requesting the Supreme Court to relinquish jurisdiction to theTwelfth Judicial Circuit.  The Florida Supreme Court denied the motion, butinstructed the State Circuit Court to hear the 3.850 Motion.  On 05/02/89, Judge Clifton Kelly vacated Richardson’s conviction and sentence of death andgranted Richardson a new trial.


Law Enforcement/ Prosecution Statements:


A letter requesting comment was sent to the DeSoto CountySheriff’s Department on 05/01/02.  No response has been received to date.


Assistant State Attorney Don Horn issued the followingstatement regarding the disposition of the Richardson case:


My comments are numerous, but I will try to restrict them tothree (3) issues:         

1)  Errors and InappropriateConduct by the State Attorney’s Office;

2)  InsufficientInvestigation by the Sheriff’s Office; and

3)  Inexperience ofthe Defense Attorney


My six (6) month review of the case led me to the unenviableconclusion that a great travesty of justice occurred and the blame mustprimarily be laid at the feet of the State Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’sOffice which prosecuted and investigated this matter.  I am listing theinformation here based on my recollection of the investigation we did with FDLEin 1989.


Errors and Inappropriate Conduct by the SAO


A.        Richardson’s trial attorney filed a motion with the trial court judge requesting copies ofstatements of the State’s many witnesses.  The Court granted the motion andordered the State to turn over the information.  The State never provided thatinformation to Richardson’s attorney, even though most of it constituted Bradymaterial.  The importance of this is underscored by your summary.  Your summaryrefers to “several jail inmates who claimed that Richardson admitted to killinghis children”, and also specifically refers to Ernell Washington and histestimony.  Many of these witnesses gave several statements.  In addition toclaiming that Richardson admitted the killing, each witness also claimed thatRichardson felt he knew who poisoned his kids (the babysitter, Betsy Reese),and that Richardson gave a very detailed explanation of a motive for Reese todo so.  As to Ernell Washington, in one portion of his transcribed statement,(if my recollection is correct) both of Richardson’s alleged claims are on thesame typed page.  Contrary to the express order of the trial court judge, thesestatements were never provided to Richardson’s attorney.  Interestingly, theFlorida Supreme Court, in addressing the “former testimony” exception to thehearsay rule as it related to the third party witnesses who testified abouttheir recollection of Ernell Washington’s testimony, specifically noted theWashington’s testimony (of Richardson’s admission) was further supported by thetestimony of several other inmates.  I cannot help but wonder whether theFlorida Supreme Court would have reached a different conclusion had it 1) beeninformed of the existence and full contents of the other statements; 2) beenfully aware that the State failed to turn over Brady material pursuantto a court order; and 3) been aware of the fact that the State Attorneys Officefailed to even disclose to defense counsel the existence of testimony in theState’s file which tended to exonerate the defendant.  Nevertheless, the Statepresented the testimony of the jailhouse informants knowing it had informationin its files, which directly contradicted that evidence.


B.        Althoughnot required to prove “motive” at the trial, the State argued that Richardson poisoned his seven kids to get the insurance money from insurance policies hehad acquired the night before their deaths.  What is the problem with thisargument?  The State had in its files numerous statements of Gerald Purvis, theinsurance agent, who repeatedly and consistently stated under oath that 1)Richardson did not acquire insurance that night; 2) Purvis told Richardson thatthe insurance would not be effective until the premiums were paid; 3)Richardson would not be able to pay him until he got paid (several days later);and 4) Richardson knew when Purvis left that night that the childrenwere not insured.  These statements were not provided to Richardson’s trialattorney, allowing the State to make an argument to the jury, which wasdirectly contradicted by evidence in its files.


C.        The Stateargued its theory of the case knowing that the physical evidence directlycontradicted it.  Everyone agrees that breakfast was prepared that morning forthe children, that Richardson and his wife left to go to work before thechildren got up, that the children ate breakfast that morning and that theRichardsons did not return to the house until after they were summonedto the hospital from the field many miles away (they did not have their owntransportation).  The physical evidence revealed that parathion poisoning waslocated on the plates, which the kids used to eat breakfast and in thegrits pot from which the breakfast was served.  Yet, not one of the childrengot sick until after they ate lunch.  Parathion poisoning was also discoveredon plates, which the children used to eat lunch, and in the pots from which thelunch was served.  Moreover, parathion poisoning was found in detergent and otheritems in and around the kitchen and in the locked refrigerator (therewas testimony that indicated there was a second key to the refrigerator whichwas kept somewhere in the kitchen), which may have indicated a desire thateveryone in the house would at some point ingest the poison.  If the childrenall ate breakfast and the poison was present when they ate, they would havegotten sick long before their noon lunchtime.  They didn’t.  Mr. Treadwell wasthe Assistant State Attorney who prosecuted this case with Frank Schaub, theState Attorney.  I took a sworn statement from Mr. Treadwell during the courseof our investigation.  When I questioned Mr. Treadwell on this issue, hisresponse was “that has always bothered me”.  In other words, to him the physicalevidence clearly demonstrated that in all probability, the poison was placed inall these locations after Richardson left the house, and there is noevidence (or assertion from the State) that Richardson retuned to the housebefore the authorities contacted him.  The State argued a theory that wasdirectly contradicted by the evidence contained in its files and presented sucha theory when one of the ASAs prosecuting the case had specific concerns aboutthe inconsistency between the physical evidence and their theory of the case. Mr. Treadwell opined that someone may have assisted Richardson and therefore, Richardson would have been guilty as a principal.  Of course no such argument was evermade, nor was there any evidence in the State’s file supporting that argumentor indicating that any investigation was ever pursued for such a theory.


Insufficient Investigation by the Sheriff’s Office


A.        Two of the most startlingstatements made to me during the course of my investigation were made by theSheriff (Frank Cline, I believe) and referred to the investigation conducted byhis office.  The first statement referred to the fact that the Sheriff had noreason to suspect Betsy Reese as a suspect.  This statement was made in spiteof the fact that on the day in question:


1.    Betsy Reese warmed the food andserved lunch to all of the    Richardson children;

2.    Betsy Reese was the last personto come into contact with the children before they started exhibiting signs ofhaving been poisoned;

3.    Betsy Reese had access to the Richardson’s residence because she was also serving as babysitter for the younger,non-school age children;

4.    Betsy Reese had already beenconvicted and served time for murdering a former husband due to jealousy;

5.    It was widely known (by theSheriff’s office and others) that Betsy Reese was suspected of killing a secondhusband (via poisoning);

6.    Betsy Reese was upset with Mr.Richardson because Richardson’s wife had a sister who visited them in Arcadia.  When Richardson’s sister-in-law left to return to Jacksonville, Florida, Betsy Reese’s third husband accompanied them.  That husband never returnedto Arcadia;

7.    After her husband failed toreturn, Betsy Reese became upset with Richardson and his wife and although shelived in the same structure, shared a common porch and lived right next door,she stopped visiting the Richardsons;

8.    Betsy Reese had just startedvisiting the Richardsons a few days before the deaths of the seven (7)children;

9.    Richardson explained this theoryin detail to the Sheriff and also to the jailhouse informants; and

10.  The Sheriff conducted at least 3searches of Richardson’s residence, the areas around and under Richardson’s residence and a shed a short distance away.  Nevertheless, the morning afterthose searches Betsy Reese went directly to the shed with the “town drunk” and“found” the poison.  The second remarkable statement from the Sheriff was, Hedidn’t see anything unusual about this discovery by Betsy Reese.


B.        Notwithstanding the above,and more importantly, while everyone was trying to find the source of thepoisoning and all the searches were being conducted in , around, under and downthe path from Richardson’s residence, the only area that was notsearched was Betsy Reese’s residence.  The Sheriff knew that some of theyounger children had actually been in Reese’s residence that day during themorning hours and before she fixed their lunch.  The Sheriff had no explanationof why such a search was not conducted other than his assertion that she wasnot a suspect.


C.        The Sheriff assisted in thetaking of statements from Richardson and the jailhouse informants and knew ofthe Brady material contained in those statements.  The Sheriff alsoassisted in the taking of statements from the insurance agent Gerald Purvis. Notwithstanding his full knowledge of those statements he testified contrary tothis evidence that was also contained in the State Attorney’s file.  This falsetestimony was never brought to the attention of the trial court judge (by theState).


Inexperience of the Defense Attorney


One of the otherthings that I feel contributed to this travesty was the defense attorney’s lackof experience in handling criminal cases of this magnitude and his failure tohave previously handled a capital case.  The playing field might have beenleveled if the State Attorney had performed his duty and obligation asprosecutor.  The State’s failure to do so caused the trial to be nothing morethan a farce, with the State presenting arguments, theories and testimony,which it knew was directly contradicted by evidence in its file andwhich was not known to the defense attorney or the Court.  Had someone notbroken into the office of the former Assistant State Attorney, stolen the filesand forwarded them to the Governor’s Office, Mr. Richardson might still besitting in prison and the egregious nature of the State’s (and Sheriff’s)actions in this case might never have been uncovered.  In my argument to JudgeClifton Kelly at the hearing on the 3.850 motion, I informed the Court thatcontrary to the arguments and assertions by other attorneys who spoke duringthe hearing, my statements and assertion were going to be backed up bydocuments.  Unfortunately, the evidence that led Judge Kelly to release Mr.Richardson at the conclusion of the hearing and the overwhelming majority ofdocuments that supported our claim that Richardson had not gotten a fair trialwere still in the State Attorney’s file twenty-one years later.


Defense Statements:


Letters requestingcomments were sent to Defense Attorneys Peter M. De Manio and Ellis S. Rubin on05/07/02.  No response has been received to date.


Defense Attorney Mark Lane provided the following statement on the Richardson case:


     I thank you for this opportunity to contribute to the historical recordregarding the State of Florida v James Joseph Richardson.

      First allow me to advise you regarding statements contained in thepresent account of the matter.

      John Spencer Robinson is deceased.

      Mr. Richardson is residing in Kansas and is gainfully employed.  He has thus far battled against severe physicalproblems that were created or contributed to by his treatment by the State of Florida. During his years of residence and work in Kansas he has been a model citizen.

      No one broke into the office of the formerAssistant State Attorney, stole the files and forwarded them to the Governor'soffice.  Mr. Horn's assertions are in error. Below, you will find anaccurate account of those matters.

      The refusal of Mr. Horn to acknowledge thecentral and crucial role of State Attorney Janet Reno, who was the only StateOfficer formally assigned to investigate the case and who was assisted by twosubordinates, one of whom was Mr. Horn, raises questions. Indeed his refusal toeven mention her name gives the impression that truth has surrendered totransitory politics.  Mr. Horn states that he addressed the Court andtakes credit for being the only attorney whose statements were supported bydocuments.  In fact, the only attorney who spoke on behalf of the State of Florida, who did so at length and who presented the conclusion that the

Statehad committed error was Janet Reno.  Mr. Horn did make a few briefcomments.
      Similarly, the refusal of Mr. Horn tomention, with the exception of a passing reference, the name of the StateAttorney Frank Schaub, who shared with Sheriff Frank Cline, the responsibilityfor deliberately framing a man they both had reason to believe was innocent,causes concern to any person seeking to understand the record.

      It is in this context of shifting blame andcredit rather recklessly that one must examine Mr. Horn's assertion that thedefense lawyer, Mr. Robinson, who served without fee, who did his best underthe extreme circumstances that existed in Arcadia at that time, is also toblame for the travesty of justice. Indeed, State Attorney Reno, in her officialreport, revealed that she was considering action against Mr. Schaub but that likelyit was time barred.  The monumental and unforgivable violation of therights of a resident of the State of Florida by its officers who were sworn touphold the law cannot be fairly revised for reasons of political expediency.

      After Mr. Richardson was convicted,sentenced to death and was confined to death row at the State Prison in Raiford, Florida, I met his attorney, John S. Robinson and subsequently visited Mr.Richardson in prison.

      I began my own investigation that continuedfor more than one year.  I interviewed all of the relevant witnesses whocould be located including the woman who had poisoned the seven children, thewitness who later located the poison in a shed, the insurance salesman, jurorswho had served at the trial and others.  I interviewed the Chief of Policeof Arcadia, Richard Barnard, who from the outset believed that Mr. Richardsonwas innocent and believed that Sheriff Cline and Frank Schaub were engaged inserious misconduct. He was removed from the case.

      Based upon my experience as a trial lawyer[at present I have been a trial lawyer for more than half a century] and theinformation I had secured from forensic experts regarding the relevantproperties of the poison, I concluded that Mr. Richardson was innocent. I wrotea book, Arcadia, about the case, hoping that it might play some part in savingMr. Richardson's life.

      That book was read by a young woman who wasthen, ten years after the trial, employed by the Assistant State Attorney in Arcadia.  She told her employer, Mr. Treadwell, that she had read the book. Mr.Treadwell, who had played a minor role as Mr. Schaub's assistant during thetrial, then stated -- "We framed an innocent man. We almost killed aninnocent man." Later the young woman repeated that confession to a friendof hers. He was outraged, asked her for the key to the office and then visitedthe office and took the file with him when he left. The file was maintained inhis constructive possession for a decade.

      Subsequently, my wife, Patricia and Iorganized an "End The Silence " meeting in an old school house, thebuilding where the older Richardson children had attended and died. Hundreds of people attended, none more important than the gentleman whohad taken the file.  In the presence of a Deputy Sheriff, Cline had sincebeen defeated, he revealed the facts that resulted in his possession of theState Attorney’s file.  Soon the file was delivered to me.

      The file was nothing less than the anatomyof a frame-up.  Before the Sunshine Laws and the Freedom of InformationAct as Amended, prosecutors and law enforcement officers thought nothing ofhaving the proof of their misconduct set forth on the record, secure in theirbelief that no outside person would ever have access to it.

      I took the file to the general counsel ofthe Governor of the State of Florida with a letter setting forth the relevantfacts and demanding that a special prosecutor be appointed. I also contacted mytwo close friends, Dick Gregory and Steve Jaffe, and together we launched amedia campaign. In a short time more than eleven thousand letters from all overthe country reached the governor. Newsweek reported that the case began as atragedy and ended as a travesty. Demands from all over the country with networktelevision programs giving the name and address of the Florida Governor, frontpage headlines in newspapers throughout the state, all coordinated by DickGregory and Mr. Jaffe, resulted in many thousands of additional letters to the governorsupporting our demand for the appointment of a special counsel.   

      The governor appointed Janet Reno as thespecial counsel with the authority to speak for the State of Florida.  Ata hearing in Florida I stated that the state had secured its conviction bysuborning perjury, using perjured testimony and suppressing exculpatoryevidence. The nation waited for Ms. Reno's response.  The arguments werecarried live via television across America. She said that Mr. Lane had made themost serious charges against a State that can be made.  She added thatunfortunately those charges were true.  She confessed error on behalf ofthe State and joined in my request that the conviction be set aside.

      After a long recess, somewhat inexplicablesince both sides to the controversy were in agreement that the verdict shouldbe reversed causing one wit to suggest that he had heard of a hung jury but nota hung judge,

thejudge set aside the conviction and James Richardson and I walked out of the Arcadia jail together.

      To the scores of reporters, photographersand television cameras James spoke briefly. He said:
      "To the people of Arcadia I thank you. You knew I was innocent and you came together, black and white, alltogether, to free me. There are still problems here in Arcadia.  Staytogether.  Help each other."     


Current Status:


There was no availableinformation regarding Richardson’s arrest history subsequent to release.



Report Date:   04/30/02          ew

Approved:       05/03/02          ws

Updated:         06/04/02          ew