A former fruit picker behind bars for two decades for the fatal poisoning of his seven children was railroaded, attorney Mark Lane told a special court hearing Tuesday.

The 21-year-old record of the case was "skewed by the prosecutor and the sheriff in this county," said Lane, who represented the former field hand, James Richardson, before Circuit Judge Clifton Kelly. "That file comprises the anatomy of a frame . . . "Lane, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and author who first alleged a frame-up in the 1971 book "Arcadia," was the first of many attorneys scheduled to be heard.

Richardson, wearing a gray suit and dark, horn-rimmed glasses, was applauded by onlookers when he was brought in to sit at the defense table.

"It is not the purpose of the court to determine innocence or guilt," said Kelly, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court in March to hear the appeal. "We are trying to find out whether there was a fair trial according to law . . . but it is impossible to separate one from the other."

The hearing was expected to last all day and possibly into Wednesday. Kelly previously has indicated he would like to rule immediately. If that happens, Richardson could be released from prison promptly. It could be difficult for the state to retry a 21-year-old case.

For months, the once-hearty fruit picker who is now a graying 53-year-old man has been inching toward freedom with evidence suggesting he did not poison his children to collect on a life insurance policy.

Earlier this month, special prosecutor Janet Reno said the 1968 conviction should be overturned because evidence was withheld and witnesses lied under oath with the prosecutor's knowledge.

But the man who put Richardson behind bars sees his possible release as a miscarriage of justice.

"I am just as convinced today of the defendant's guilt as I was 20 years ago," said former state attorney Frank Schaub, who is suing Lane and attorney Ellis Rubin for alleged defamation of character.

Defense lawyers say baby sitter Bessie Reese poisoned the children while Richardson and his wife, Annie Mae, were working in citrus groves miles away.

Reese, who is in her late 60s and is immobile in a nursing home, has confessed to nurses to the 1967 deaths, according to an affidavit from nurses. No charges have been filed against her, and prosecutors have said she has become confused.