Sometimes a documentary can tell such compelling story that from the first minute you can’t help but jump onboard and root for the underdog. The person at the center of Time Simply Passes is an African American migrant worker, James Richardson, whose life was marked by unspeakable tragedy. HIs seven children died from poisoning, and the state blamed him for the crime. Following a rush to judgment that saw Robinson tried with inadequate representation and found guilty, he survived decades of wrongful imprisonment, psychological torture, and treachery at the hands of corrupt state bureaucrats and judicial system officials. Twenty years after his conviction, thanks to the help of advocates who doggedly fought for a new hearing, Richardson was released from prison and has remained free ever since.
Many might wonder how such a travesty of justice could have occurred. But given the racial climate of the of the times and the geographical location where Richardson lived, it’s abundantly clear that the deck was inexorably stacked against the poor farm worker.
“Following a rush to judgment that saw Robinson tried with inadequate representation and found guilty…”
The story begins in 1967 in Arcadia, Florida, where Richardson and his wife, Annie Mae, lived with their seven children. One day, James and Annie Mae went off to the fields to work, and a neighbor, Bessie Reece, was left in charge of feeding the children a meal of beans and grits. After eating, all seven children took ill and died. When an insurance salesman’s business card, scrawled with information about insuring the children for $500 each, was found at the Richardson home, the state believed it had stumbled on a motive for the crime. James was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death.
It was a long, tough road for Richardson, who after imprisonment endured a “dry run” for his date with the electric chair, as all death row prisoners in that region were forced to do. His head was shaved, and he was strapped into the chair. Richardson didn’t know this was just a preliminary run-through, and believed that he was about to be electrocuted, but instead was returned to his cell. The idea behind the dry run was to instruct death row inmates of what to expect on the day of their execution — at least, that was the state’s explanation. The death penalty would later be overturned by the high court, and Richardson’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. There he stayed for two decades until his case was revisited by appointed Miami-Dade County prosecutor Janet Reno, who later became U.S. attorney general.
Richardson’s eventual release was followed by years of foot-dragging when it came to paying him reparations for false imprisonment. The county prosecutor who put Richardson on death row, State Attorney Frank Schaub, refused to acknowledge the error and was implicated although never charged with burying evidence that would have squelched the conviction. Sheriff Frank Cline is also cited for his role in leading the deeply flawed investigation that ultimately railroaded Richardson into the penitentiary.
“…a lesson we shouldn’t forget, and…whose timing couldn’t be better.”
Time Simply Passes uses present-day interviews with individuals who played key roles in clearing Richardson’s name. Archival footage and photos help transport us back to the Deep South of 1967, where questionable testimony from prison inmates who claimed Richardson confessed to them, circumstantial evidence (Richardson had never insured his children) and suppressed depositions could be manipulated to convict an African American of humble means.
Now in his 80s, Richardson has just begun to collect his reparation money. The state of Florida now acknowledges that terrible injustices were committed, but has been slow to put their money where their mouths are.
In an age when the government seems chiefly interested in protecting the rights of the well-heeled, films like this are an important reminder that less visible members of society can be easily scapegoated by officials hell-bent on making a reputation for themselves. It’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget, and this is a film whose timing couldn’t be better.
Time Simply Passes (2016) Directed by Ty Flowers. Starring James Joseph Richardson, Tim Edman, Therese Ziarno, Peter Gallagher, Don Horn, Richard Pinsky, Sen. Geraldine Thompson, Barry Scheck, Janet Reno, Mark Lane, Ellis Rubin, State Rep. Dave Kerner.
9 out of 10