Man who spent 3 decades in prison for crime he didn’t commit is finally released

Judge exonerates man after prosecutors’ Justice Project found him innocent

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office announced on Wednesday the Justice Project's legal unit found a man was wrongly convicted for murder in 1991. He was freed on Wednesday.

MIAMI – A man who has spent 32 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit walked out of prison Wednesday as a free man.

“I’m coming. I’m a man of my word, I’m coming,” Thomas Raynard James said. “The greatest feeling in the world -- family, friends, freedom. I couldn’t ask for more.”

In 1990, two burglars burst through the front door of an apartment in Miami-Dade County. One was masked; the other was not. Francis McKinnon walked out of his bedroom armed with a gun.

McKinnon’s stepdaughter Dorothy Walton saw a burglar shoot and kill him. Anonymous tipsters identified the gunman as Thomas James and with Walton’s identification, he was convicted of McKinnon’s murder and sentenced to life in prison at 23.

“It’s like living a nightmare, and for the last 30-some years I’ve been trying to wake up from it,” James, 55, said.

On Wednesday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced prosecutors’ review of the evidence showed James was not the man who killed McKinnon on Jan. 17, 1990. Prosecutors found he was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery with a firearm, armed burglary, and aggravated assault with a firearm.

“We are going to undo what is the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. Today, we are undoing an injustice, which was an unintentional wrong. We are going to ask the court, our court of law, to give Mr. James the freedom he deserves — and his mom is going to be standing right by him,” Fernandez Rundle said before walking from her office to the courthouse.

Fernandez Rundle walked with James and his family to watch prosecutors file a motion to request post-conviction relief, vacate his judgment and his sentence, and set him free. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel M. de la O exonerated James.

“I am so grateful that Jay gets to walk out of here and live his life,” Attorney Natlie G. Figgers, who represented James, said adding she was grateful for the work of Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban, who she described as “an amazing woman.”

Fernandez Rundle credited her office’s Justice Project legal unit. It was set up in 2003 for a prosecution-based review of cases. The team reopened James’s case in 2021. Fernandez Rundle said her team reviewed over 10,000 pages of documents, resubmitted fingerprints for reanalysis, and took the sworn statements of witnesses.

Walton, the star witness who accused James of murder, recanted her testimony. Fernandez Rundles said a few weeks ago Walton repeated that her identification was a mistake. James also took a polygraph test and no deception was found.

“There was really no other evidence of his guilt. In fact, there was no physical evidence that we could find tying anyone to the crime,” Fernandez Rundle said.

THE OTHER JAMES

Prosecutors found it was not a case of mistaken identity, as James had suspected.

“This theory was never really true because the second Tommy James was already in custody the date the crime occurred,” Fernandez Rundle said.

The second Thomas “Tommy” James told Justice Project investigators that he and his cousin Vincent “Dog” Williams had been planning the burglary, but when he was arrested he couldn’t go through with it. Williams allegedly told him he and another man, identified as Derrick Evans, did go through with it, according to Fernandez Rundle.

“This case has gone through numerous, by the way, appellate reviews by the circuit courts and by our appellate courts and I believe there have been something like 10 post-conviction reviews in all,” Fernandez Rundle said. “The Innocence Project had twice reviewed this case over the last 20 years and there was a private detective who also reviewed this case. None were successful.”

Williams is now dead and Evans is in prison for another crime. Figgers said James’s case comes with a lesson about the importance of reporting information about crimes to the police.

“As a community, we have a duty to speak up when we see an injustice. A lot of times we are afraid to speak up because we think of the consequences,” Figgers said. “Don’t think of that when you know that someone out there is going to suffer if you do not speak up. Do the right thing! Protect those who need protection.”

James will now begin adjusting to his new life of freedom.

“I’m preparing myself for some kind of culture shock -- something like that,” he said.

While he can’t get back 32 years of his life, he says he will make the rest of his years count.

James’s lawyer says he is in need of resources as he re-enters society. James wants to find a job and start his new life. If you are able to help, please email Natlie Figgers at natlie@figgerslaw.com.

Afternoon reports

Prosecutors asked a Miami-Dade County judge to exonerate a man who was wrongly convicted of murder. The prosecutions' Justice Project found the man was wrongly convicted of murder in 1991.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office announced on Wednesday the Justice Project's legal unit found a man was wrongly convicted for murder in 1991. He was freed on Wednesday.

RELATED DOCUMENT

Read the 90-page motion prosecutors filed

Watch the Crime Specialist’s report

A man who has been claiming innocence for 32 years may be getting out of prison.

Watch Fernandez Rundle’s announcement

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About the Authors:

Bridgette Matter joined the Local 10 News team as a reporter in July 2021. Before moving to South Florida, she began her career in South Bend, Indiana and spent six years in Jacksonville as a reporter and weekend anchor.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.