Black caucus urges Weatherford to take action on Richardson caseby John Kennedy | March 31st, 2014
The Florida Legislative Black Caucus agreed Monday night to urge House Speaker Will Weatherford to let legislation be heard aimed at compensating an elderly man convicted but later absolved of one of the most infamous mass murders in state history.
The measure amounts to a state apology to James Richardson, a migrant farmworker from Arcadia accused in 1967 of poisoning his seven children.
Richardson spent more than two decades behind bars, including four years on Death Row, before he was freed in 1989 amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and perjury.
Caucus Chairman Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said he will draft a letter to Weatherford bearing the signatures of caucus members, asking that he order the legislation (HB 227) heard in Chairman Matt Gaetz’s House Criminal Justice Subcommittee or redirect it to another panel.
The subcommittee is scheduled to conclude its work next week and Gaetz, R-Shalimar, has not scheduled the bill for a hearing.
Without any movement in the House, the effort for Richardson is likely doomed even though a similar bill (CS/SB 326) has cleared three Senate panels on unanimous votes and could soon go to the full Senate.
“We’re really at a loss here,” Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, told the caucus Monday night in seeking their support.
Under the narrowly drawn measure Richardson could qualify for a $1.2 million state payment under the state’s wrongful incarceration law. It would affect only someone sentenced to life in prison or death before Jan. 1, 1980 and would be automatically repealed in two years, presumably after Richardson could gain compensation.
Richardson, now age 77, is in frail health and living in Wichita, Kansas.
The legislation would broaden the state’s wrongful incarceration law to include someone who has received a nolle prosequi declaration from a special prosecutor.
That declaration by then-Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno closed the case to further action by the state, but it also has contributed to Richardson being barred from compensation under current Florida law.
Those eligible for wrongful incarceration claims must be effectively declared innocent by a court — usually based on DNA evidence. Richardson has never been found innocent, evidence in the case has been lost or destroyed, and it long precedes the advances of DNA science.