The fear that surely lingers somewhere, in some degree, in some deep place in the minds of some honest people is not that they will pay the penalties of justice for wrongs they have done but that they will suffer the wrongs of injustice created by the abuse of power in the justice system.
But it happens.
And when getting over the bar of “reasonable doubt” was more of a tap-dance than that mountain climb with the advent of the now ironclad tell-all DNA evidence, it happened more often.
And when Jim Crow was still – at least in a de facto sense – the law of the land in the southern United States, if happened at alarming rates.
And so while the story that unfolds in the documentary film called “Time Simply Passes” may be of one man’s horrific odyssey through the Florida judicial system, its resounding message is one far more odious and insidious and reflective of a government that too often is concerned less with truth and justice than it is with expedience and finality.
“Time Simply Passes” made its world premiere Friday night at Shearer Hall on the campus of Mitchell Community College as one of the featured films in the inaugural Full Bloom Film Festival, which concluded Saturday.
The film tells the heartbreaking story of James J. Richardson, a Florida black man whose seven children – aged 2 to 8 – were poisoned to death while he and his wife were in the orange groves doing the backbreaking dawn-to-dusk labor of migrant workers.
That his entire brood died horrible and excruciating deaths is enough to paralyze any human being in nightmarish anguish.
But to think that Richardson was viewed almost immediately as a – and, soon thereafter, the only suspect – in the mass murder lies at place so unimaginable, so Kafkaesque, is to bring sense to the idea of fatalism in its most horrid deliverance.
Police investigators and the state’s attorney pinned their case largely on the business card of an insurance agent who had visited the Richardsons in the days prior to the murders and on the lies of snitches jailed with Richardson in the six months or so between his arrest in late October 1967 and his being sentenced to death in a four-day trial in May 1968.
Also found in a shed behind the Richardson’s apartment complex was a two-pound sack of parathion, a pesticide that was determined to have been the cause of the deaths. What is interesting about the finding of the poison is that it occurred during a second search of the shed by police, not the first one.
It was also determined that the poison had been mixed in with the children’s lunch grits, which they were served and ate long after their parents had hopped on the back of the migrant workers' transport truck.
The person who served the meals to the children was a neighbor named Bessie Reece.
Police never considered Reece as a suspect, but simply interviewed her as to determine the timeline of events. And while investigators did ascertain that Reece had been in some trouble with the law – that, indeed, she was presently on probation – they did not ask her during the interview or at the trial what the charges had been against her.
They were for the murder of her husband.
Robertson spent 21 years on prison. His release came following a confession by Reece to an attendant in a nursing home that she, Reece, had killed the children.
Robertson, whose death penalty was commutated to a life sentence following the 1972 Supreme Court moratorium on executions, left prison essentially penniless and another more than two decade-fight ensued for wrongful imprisonment compensation from the State of Florida, which just last year finalized a position on Richardson’s matter.
Only a few months ago Richardson received an installment on the money the state owes him.
“Time Simply Passes” was made by Ty Flowers, who grew up in Florida and recalled his father’s involvement in trying to help Richardson. Flowers flew into Statesville for the screening of his film’s premier and when asked said he would like the film to be the catyalyst for more thorough debate on these types of cases.
“I’d like the film to help start a conversation,” he said. “We need to talk more openly and often about this kind of injustice; about how much control we give away to the justice system and about how much god-like power we give to relative handful of people.”
Indeed, we do need such a conversation.