Life easily could have been over for James Joseph Richardson in 1967. A black orange picker from Arcadia, in Central Florida, he was convicted that year of the gruesome murders of his seven children – murders he didn’t commit. It would take more than two decades of false imprisonment before Richardson was finally exonerated in 1989.
But life after prison was far from a storybook ending. That’s the focus of the new documentary put together by a Fort Lauderdale native with personal ties to the case. The movie is screening this year at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
Ty Flowers grew up hearing rumbles about the Richardson case. His father – Charles Flowers — was a seasoned investigative journalist who, along with reporting partner Peter B. Gallagher, contributed significant work to the Miami Herald, Tropic Magazine, and New Times. In the 1980s, the pair turned their attention to Richardson’s case. The conviction – for allegedly killing his children with insect-poison-spiked lunches – was rife with inconsistencies and shoddy evidence.
By the 1980s, the children’s former babysitter, then dying in a nursing home, allegedly confessed to the crime. “So Pete and my father did a big series of stories trying to get some sort of pressure put on the governor to reinvestigate the case,” Ty Flowers recalls today. Eventually, then-Gov. Bob Martinez relented, appointing then-Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno to investigate. In 1989, a judge set aside the conviction.
Flash to 2013: Flowers was a University of Florida grad toiling away in New York City on television productions while hoping one day to shoot an original documentary. One day, he was talking with his dad when Richardson’s case came up.
“I just assumed after he got released, everything worked out and the way the world works is you got a settlement,” Flowers says. “To my surprise, I realized he’d been living completely dirt-poor, unable to work because they don’t really expunge your records, so it still looks like he’s the murderer of seven children as far as jobs are concerned.”
The main issue, Flowers learned, was that, unlike other states, Florida law failed to compensate wrongfully convicted individuals for their time incarcerated. A 2008 law had corrected that oversight but required DNA evidence to prove an exoneree was actually innocent. Richardson’s case, from the pre-CSI days, didn’t qualify.
But in 2014, a new bill was slated for the Florida Legislature that would apply to cases like Richardson’s. Flowers had found a topic for his first film.
At first, the would-be director planned to make only a short film in preparation for the Legislature’s 2014 session – something to push the agenda. But once Flowers dove into the case and the thorny patch of wrongful-conviction compensation, he realized he had an unwieldy beast on his hands.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
“There was no way to explain the particulars of it in an easy, glossy sort of way,” he says. “There were so many components of it, I thought it would make sense to dig in deep.”
The resulting film, Time Simply Passes, covers the deeply complex nuances of Richardson’s case while also capturing the moment in 2014 that the Florida Legislature passed the updated, just legislation. Richardson, who now lives in Kansas, has finally received the first installments of his $1 million compensation from the Sunshine State.
Flowers isn’t sure what’s in store for his film in the future. “I made this thing pretty genuinely without any sort of Kickstarter bullshit or grants. It just felt like something I needed to do.”
During the festival, the film will be showing twice — on Tuesday, November 3, at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale; and Thursday, November 12, at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.