An attorney for a Florida man who spent over three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit has vowed to seek restitution for her client.
Thomas Raynard James, 55, spent 31 years in prison after he was convicted for the 1990 murder of Francis McKinnon in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Witnesses in the case named Thomas “Tommy” James as a gunman in the robbery and murder, but it was a case of hearsay and mistaken identity. Thomas Raynard James maintained his innocence and filed multiple appeals. He was exonerated in late April after a witness recanted her testimony.
James’ attorney, Natlie Figgers, said she plans to fight for James to be compensated. He is entitled to about $1.5 million, or $50,000, for every year he was wrongly incarcerated under Florida law.
“Once I saw the evidence and reviewed the case, it was pretty clear that a mistake had occurred, and I was pretty flabbergasted that he submitted that many appeals and they didn’t see the same thing. … When you hear that, it’s just mistaken identity due to a name,” Figgers said.
“How can somebody be wrongfully convicted just based on having the same name?”
James was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in January 1991 for killing the elderly man.
Regina Ortiz lived in McKinnon’s building at the time of the robbery and heard the gunshot. Two men reportedly entered Francis and Ethra McKinnon’s apartment and stole $300 to $400 from a cookie tin after shooting Francis in the cheek. Ortiz told authorities she recognized one of the men fleeing from the apartment as “Dog,” a guy she knew growing up in Coconut Grove.
Ortiz also claimed Tommy James was the other suspect. Other tenants also named Dog in the case, and police received several tips that identified Vincent “Dog” Cephus Williams and Thomas “Tommy” James as the culprits.
Thomas Raynard James was picked up in August 1990 for marijuana and gun possession charges, but he was surprised when he was arraigned for first-degree murder, armed robbery with a firearm, armed burglary, and aggravated assault with a firearm.
He had only been to Coconut Grove once or twice in his 23-year life, and it was years before he could have committed the crime, he said. James told GQ magazine in 2021 that he was sure the truth would come out in his trial. But for the more than 30 years, James felt like he was “living a nightmare.”
“It was horrendous. … To have somebody to be incarcerated can be dramatic in of itself, but to know that you’re sitting here, and you’re going through these days on a daily basis for something that you didn’t have anything to do with, it was torture,” James said.
Metro-Dade Detective Kevin Conley testified that he found only one Thomas James in the police database and included his photo in the lineup.
Ortiz went to school with Dog. She recognized the other suspect in the case but did not select Thomas Raynard James’ photo from the lineup.
Ortiz would later say she never saw Tommy running from the building, but rumor had it that he had committed the crime. McKinnon’s daughter, Dorothy Walton, picked James in the lineup, but her husband, who was in the apartment with Walton during the murder, picked someone else. Larry Miller, a resident with a brain injury, who reportedly asked the two men for a cigarette, also selected James as the suspect.
Walton and her mother even told police she knew the suspect’s mother, and they were distant relatives.
“I knew his mother,” McKinnon reportedly said in a deposition. “That’s Mary’s son, Thomas James, and the other one she call Dog. His right name is Vincent.” Thomas Raynard James’ mother is named Doris, not Mary.
“My mother? Don’t nobody in Coconut Grove know my mother,” James reportedly told his defense attorney.
James was convicted solely on the eyewitness testimony of Larry Miller and Dorothy Walton. His defense attorney did not call any witnesses in the case, reports show. None of the fingerprints lifted from the crime scene matched James, and the murder weapon was never recovered, according to reports. Vincent Williams, who is now dead, was never arrested in connection with the McKinnon slaying.
James’s conviction withstood 10 post-conviction reviews. The case was also reviewed by a private detective and The Innocence Project in Florida twice. After the GQ article was published, local activists pressured Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to reopen the case in late 2021.
Rundle said her Justice Project unit reviewed 10,000 pages of documents, re-examined the evidence and spoke to witnesses. Walton told investigators that she had made a mistake. James also passed a polygraph test.
Circuit Court Judge Miguel M. de la O overturned James’ conviction on April 27.
Rundle said the wrongful conviction was not entirely because the two men shared the same name.
Thomas “Tommy” James was in jail when the crime was committed. He told investigators that he and his cousin, Vincent “Dog” Williams, had been planning the home invasion right before he was arrested. Williams then recruited another man, Derrick Evans as his accomplice, Rundle said.
James said he now plans to get on his feet, look for work and write a book about his incarceration. His family has created an online fundraiser to help James with his fresh start.
He also wants to launch a foundation to help other wrongly accused people, but first, he wants to catch up on lost time.
“The list of things that I missed out on is long. For me, one thing that would mention is that I lost a lot of family, a lot of friends… they went to their grave with me still sitting in prison for a crime I didn’t commit,” James said.
“Injustice to anyone is injustice to everyone. So when people such as myself are crying out don’t just brush them off and automatically call them guilty.”