Judge vacates life sentence of wrongfully convicted man

Posted at 5:02 PM, April 27, 2022 and last updated 5:02 PM, April 27, 2022

By FREIDA FRISARO Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — A judge in Miami on Wednesday vacated the life sentence of a 55-year-old Black man who prosecutors said was wrongfully convicted because of mistaken identity in 1991.

“I feel good. Real good,” Thomas “Jay” Raynard James said Wednesday as he left a Miami courtroom with his attorneys and family members.

James was convicted of the 1990 death of Francis McKinnon, largely on the identification by an eyewitness who told jurors she watched him gun down her stepfather during a robbery in his Coconut Grove apartment.

Earlier Wednesday, James, wearing his red prison uniform and shackles, stood behind his mother, Doris Strong, as Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle detailed a 90-page motion her office filed asking for the conviction to be vacated.

“Mom, hopefully the court will grant you the freedom you’ve been looking for for so many years,” Fernandez Rundle told Strong, who sobbed quietly throughout the news conference.

James, who was 23 when he was convicted, was expected to be released after paperwork was completed Wednesday.

Over the past year, Fernandez Rundle said, members of her office’s Justice Project poured over 20,000 pages of documents, reinterviewed witnesses, resubmitted fingerprints and retested DNA samples.

She said the case has gone through numerous appeals, post-conviction reviews, and reviews by a private investigator and the Innocence Project of Florida Inc.

“None were successful in finding Mr. Thomas Raynard James innocent until we got involved,” Fernandez Rundle said.

In a 90-page motion to vacate the conviction, prosecutors said “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 … led to the defendant’s photograph being included in a lineup, and set in motion a mistaken identity.”

Months later, James was arrested and charged with murder.

At the trial, eyewitness Dorothy Walton told jurors that she was sure that James, then 23, pulled the trigger.

“I’m positive of it. I will never forget his face,” she told jurors in 1991.

Another eyewitness who had identified James in the photo lineup testified that the person he saw that night was not in the courtroom.

But Walton’s testimony was key to the jury’s verdict, because there was no physical evidence tying anyone to the killing, Fernandez Rundle said. In fact, fingerprints from the scene did not match James.

But beginning last fall, Walton said she had some concerns about her testimony, Fernandez Rundle said. She initially refused to meet with prosecutors, but earlier this month made contact and said she now believes she made a mistake in identifying James as the gunman.

Fernandez Rundle said that over the years there have been conflicting stories about detectives confusing James with another man who shared his name. But that man had been arrested and was in jail at the time of the shooting, she said.

The man suspected of killing McKinnon died in 2020 in Las Vegas, the motion said.

Natlie Figgers, who represents James, urged people to speak up when they see an injustice.

“It took a village to make this happen. It wasn’t a smooth ride,” Figgers said. “I want to extend my gratitude to everyone that played a part in bringing this result.”

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