A Miami man who's spent more than 30 years in prison after he was given a life sentence for a 1990 homicide is now a free man after prosecutors said he was wrongfully convicted.
A Miami-Dade judge on Wednesday vacated the conviction and life sentence for Thomas Raynard James, 55, based on a motion filed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office.
James and his family appeared at a news conference with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle shortly before the court hearing.
"For the James family this has been a day long in coming," Fernandez Rundle said. "We are going to undue what is a wrongful conviction of an innocent man."
Get South Florida local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC South Florida newsletters.
It's a case that NBC 6 has been investigating. Defense attorney Natlie Figgers said there was no DNA or other physical evidence tying James to the case and the murder weapon was never found.
Figgers said James, who goes by Jay, was convicted based on witnesses picking his photo from a line-up for the 1990 murder of Francis McKinnon in Coral Gables.
His family reacted to the news Tuesday night.
“The family is happy, we are all happy,” said his mother, Doris Strong. “I don’t know how he feels, but I can imagine."
On Tuesday night, family and friends gathered at Strong’s home to celebrate.
“It’s 32 years too late. What they are going to do (Wednesday), they could have done 32 years ago,” said his friend, Sammy Wilson, who served time with James.
James has spent 32 years behind bars for the murder. He was charged in January 1990 and convicted during a jury trial a year later when he was 23 years old. He’s now 55 years old.
DETAILS OF THE MURDER
The Florida murder happened on January 17, 1990 at the home of Francis and Ethra McKinnon, located at 135 South Dixie Highway, unit #110, according to police. The apartment building is no longer standing and is now the site of new construction in Coral Gables.
According to police reports provided to the NBC 6 Investigators, Ethra’s daughter Dorothy Walton was at the home visiting with her husband Johnny. Ethra was watching TV while Dorothy and her husband were in the kitchen and Francis was in a bedroom when two Black males came in the front door, according to police reports.
One of the men had a gun. Police said the family was told to “get down.” According to police reports, the gunman grabbed a purse and that’s when Francis heard the commotion and came out of the bedroom with a loaded gun, but the intruder fired first, killing Francis.
Police reports said the intruders got away with a few hundred dollars in cash. Coral Gables Police responded to the scene, but the Metro-Dade Police Department took over the investigation.
According to police reports, the night of the murder tips started coming in about a man named Vincent Williams, also known as “Dog.” The second name given to police was Thomas James. Witnesses described him as Thomas James from the “Grove,” referring to the Coconut Grove neighborhood.
James’ lawyer said months later, her client was arrested for an unrelated charge. While in custody for that case, James was charged with McKinnon’s death. Figgers explained her client was not from Coconut Grove, but was picked out of a photo line-up by witnesses including the victim’s stepdaughter, Dorothy Walton.
According to court records, two people testified that they picked the photo of Thomas Raynard James from the photo-line-up. One of the witnesses testified in court that the person they picked was not in court, despite James sitting across from them.
Fingerprints were found at the scene, but none matched James, according to court documents.
Figgers said there was no DNA or other physical evidence, no murder weapon and only witness testimony. The star witness was Dorothy Walton, who pointed James out in court as the killer.
Figgers said James had no alibi because he couldn’t remember where he was at the time of the murder.
James was found guilty in a 1991 jury trial and sentenced to life in prison. Figgers said James has maintained his innocence from the beginning. Over the years, he has tried to appeal the conviction, but failed.
In 2021, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office Justice Project reopened James’ case. In March, NBC 6 started looking into the case and reached out to the people involved, including Dorothy Walton.
When NBC 6 went to speak to Walton, she immediately told our crew, “they had the wrong guy.” When NBC 6 asked for clarification, she repeated that police arrested the wrong man for the murder. But before NBC 6 could get any more details, a family member ended the conversation.
NBC 6 went back a few days later and she again repeated what she said the first time, this time adding, “I told them I will make a statement."
Walton did not clarify who she was referring to. It’s also unclear what caused her to recant her original statements in court.
The homicide victim’s biological daughter, Christina McKinnon, previously told NBC 6 that she does not support the release of Thomas Raynard James. NBC 6 reached out for reaction after news broke about his release, but has yet to hear back.
A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY?
While serving life in prison, Figgers said Thomas Raynard James started his own investigation which determined there was another Thomas James in the prison system serving life for a string of armed robberies.
That Thomas James was in a crew with Vincent Williams, also known as "Dog," in the Coconut Grove area. Figgers said James believed it was a case of mistaken identity. But, the Thomas James that "Jay" found was locked up the day of the murder.
In their filing seeking to have the conviction overturned, Miami-Dade prosecutors said name confusion likely led to the conviction.
"What appears to be a chance coincidence that the defendant, Thomas Raynard James, had the same name as a suspect named by witnesses and anonymous tipsters as 'Thomas James' or 'Tommy James,' led to the defendant's photograph being included in a lineup, and set in motion a mistaken identification," the filing said.
A second person was never charged in connection to the McKinnon murder and now that Jay’s conviction has been overturned, the question remains: who killed Francis McKinnon?
The State Attorney's Office said the names Vincent Williams and Derrick Evans were brought up in their investigation.
According to the court filing, the other Tommy James was interviewed by state attorney's office investigators and said William was his cousin. He said the two had committed other robberies but said he wasn't involved in the Coral Gables killing.
Tommy James said Williams had told him to keep his mouth shut about the murder, the filing said. He also mentioned Evans' name as a possibility for being involved in the crime.
Williams is deceased, but Evans is still alive and in currently in prison. Investigators are now moving forward with the homicide investigation.
A GoFundMe account was created to help James with funds for legal fees and family obligations.