By Paula Chin and Meg Grant
Updated March 06, 1989 12:00 PM

They lie in tiny graves in Arcadia, Fla., seven children who, in October 1967, suffered gruesome deaths after eating a meal laced with lethal insecticide. Across the state in a Day ton a Beach prison, James Richardson, 53, the man they knew as their father, still weeps over their loss and his own tragic fate. Richardson has spent the past 21 years behind bars, convicted of a crime he insists he didn’t commit: killing the children in order to collect at least $3,500 in life insurance.

It was one of the most infamous mass murders in state history. But now it seems the case against Richardson was an appalling miscarriage of justice. A witness’s recantation, an apparent confession and other new evidence suggest Richardson was railroaded by officials more eager to close the case than to solve it Gov. Bob Martinez and his cabinet plan to hold a clemency hearing within a month that could set Richardson free. And the Florida Supreme Court may yet grant him a new trial, which could clear his name—and expose those who may have wronged him. “They treated me like I was some kind of dog,” he says. “They should be punished, too, and feel what it’s like.”

In 1967 Richardson and his wife, Annie Mae, were itinerant laborers who had just moved to Arcadia from Daytona Beach to pick oranges for 25 cents a crate. Of then-seven children, four were the product of their own union, three were from previous marriages and relationships. On Oct 25 the family’s day began as usual. At 6:50 A.M. James and Annie Mae set out for the groves 14 miles away. The eldest daughter, Betty, fed breakfast to the others before she, Alice and Susie Mae went to school, leaving Dorine, Venessa, Diane and James Jr. with their next-door neighbor, Dorothy Bracey. But Bracey was taking her own children to a doctor, so her mother, 46-year-old Betsy Reese, baby-sat at the Richardson apartment

When the older girls came home for lunch just before noon, Reese served all seven children the meal of rice, beans and hogshead cheese that Annie Mae had prepared. The horror began less than an hour later at school, when Betty, Alice and Susie Mae were seized by violent spasms, their mouths foaming and bodies contorting in pain. Teachers rushed them to the hospital and went to the Richardson home to check on their siblings, only to find them suffering the same symptoms. Within two hours, all but Diane, who survived until morning, had died in agony. Autopsies revealed why: The children had eaten parathion, a deadly insecticide.

To De Soto County Sheriff Frank Cline, James Richardson was the prime suspect from the start Cline said he overheard Richardson telling the hospital staff that he had decided to take out life insurance policies for himself, his wife and children just the night before the kids fell ill. Certain they had discovered a motive, Cline and other investigators searched the Richardson apartment and a shed in the front yard, removing several items for lab tests. The findings were shocking: Parathion was everywhere—in a pot and frying pan, the sugar bowl, the talcum powder—enough poison, it turned out, to kill a large city.

Still, there were holes in the case. Parathion was found in a pot of grits, yet the children had eaten the grits at breakfast without getting sick—so it must have been put in later. Investigators could not find the source of the insecticide; but the morning after the murders, Betsy Reese told Cline that she had just found a sack of parathion inside the shed. Oddly, though the shed was dry, the bag was soaked with dew, which should have raised greater suspicions that it had been planted. Insurance agent Gerald Purvis told investigators that he had made his sales call to Richardson uninvited, and that Richardson, who had not yet paid the premiums, knew the policies were not in effect. Despite the weakness of the case, Frank Schaub, the state prosecutor, charged James Richardson with one count of premeditated murder. (Schaub charged him with only one death so that if he were acquitted, he could be tried again—and again—for each of the other killings until he was convicted.)

By the time of Richardson’s trial in May 1968, public opinion had reached a fever pitch. “He was almost ready for a lynching,” recalls attorney John Robinson, who volunteered to represent him. Sheriff Cline testified that James had shown him “a receipt” for the insurance policy. Yet no actual receipt existed, only the agent’s business card with notations about the prospective coverage. The prosecution also produced two criminals who claimed Richardson had confessed while sharing a jail cell with them. Robinson, then a novice criminal lawyer who says now that he wishes he’d had more experience, simply called a few character witnesses and let Annie Mac and James take the stand. James testified, “I would rather take their place and let them live.” The jury deliberated only 84 minutes before finding him guilty, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Richardson spent four years on death row; his guards took him through mock preparations for execution. “They weighed me, measured me, shaved all the hair from my body,” he recalls. “It’s just a hard feeling, wondering would I get a chance to see my wife before I die, or see my mother or somebody. It just was sad.” He fell asleep at night to the sobbing of other condemned men. “Most of the time I could taste the scent of death in my mouth, knowin’ I was on my last stage, hopin’ [someone] was out there that could help me.” In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 131 pending death sentences, and Richardson was eventually resentenced to 25 years.

Betsy Reese, who had served the children their fatal meal, finally broke her silence. Suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Reese, now 68, had been admitted to a nursing home near Arcadia in late 1986. One afternoon that year, nursing-home employee Brenda Frazier, who had heard rumors that Reese herself was the murderer, asked, “Did you kill those kids, Betsy?” Reese paused before answering. “Yeah, I did that,” she said. When asked why, “She’d just start crying,” says Frazier, “going off to herself singing church songs and praying, like she was asking for forgiveness.” Last year lawyer-author Mark Lane, who had written a book about Richardson’s case in 1970, persuaded Frazier and another nurse who had heard the admission to sign affidavits. In August he launched a new “Free James Richardson” campaign, staging a rally in Arcadia.

The publicity paid off. Lane and Robinson were approached by an Arcadia resident who said he knew of a box of documents that could prove Richardson’s innocence. To their astonishment, they found the box contained crucial evidence that the state attorney’s office had withheld from the defense during the trial, including transcripts of interviews in which the two jailhouse witnesses gave conflicting accounts of James’s supposed confession. Also in the box were prosecutors’ notes on Reese’s violent background. At the time of the murders, she was on parole after four years in prison for shooting and killing her second husband in 1956. And a decade before, her first husband had died mysteriously after consuming a breakfast she’d prepared for him. The documents even hinted at a motive Reese might have had to strike at the Richard-sons: Shortly before the children’s murders, Reese’s third husband, Johnny King, had abandoned her and taken up with James’s cousin.

This January, Richardson’s new lawyer, prominent Miami attorney Ellis Rubin, questioned one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Richardson’s former cellmate James Weaver, under oath. He admitted that Richardson never confessed to him. Rubin is optimistic that the Florida Supreme Court will grant a new trial, but the original prosecution team disagrees. Red Treadwell, who was an assistant prosecutor in the case, remains convinced that Richardson murdered for money. “James, who’s probably got an IQ of about 78, didn’t understand the technicalities of insurance,” he insists. “I still feel he was under the impression he was covered.” And Schaub, who says no evidence was withheld at the time, argues that Reese’s admission is meaningless, because Alzheimer’s has rendered her incompetent. “She has not confessed,” he maintains. “She has said she poisoned the children…. She cut up [the food] and all, and I guess she’s felt responsible because of that.”

Meanwhile, James Richardson hopes to rebuild his shattered life and reunite with Annie Mae, 51, who works in Jacksonville. She never gave up on her husband, visiting him regularly until she could no longer afford the bus fare. “I never had no doubt he was innocent,” she says. “He loved his family.”

Richardson, who underwent open-heart surgery last year, became an ordained Southern Baptist minister while in prison. “I’d like to complete my ministry by going to Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” he says. But he won’t get his hopes up until the prison doors swing open in front of him. If they do, he says, “I’d like to get my own church, let people know how to suffer and have pain.”

—Paula Chin, and Meg Grant in Florida