After serving 32 years in prison, man claiming innocence may have life sentence vacated
In January of 1990, an apartment unit at 135 South Dixie Highway in Coconut Grove was robbed.
Two men burst through the door demanding valuables. One was masked, one was not.
During the robbery, one of the men inside, Francis McKinnon, heard the commotion and left his bedroom.
It was then the gunman shot and killed him.
McKinnon’s murder was witnessed by his family, including his step daughter, Dorthy Walton.
She would play a vital role as the case moved through the justice system, serving as the state’s star witness at trial.
According to police reports, anonymous tips began pouring in that the men responsible for the robbery were Thomas Raynard James and a guy who went by the name Dog Williams.
When police tracked down James, he had an iron clad alibi; he was already in jail. It would have been impossible for him to be involved in the murder.
“The person they was referring to was someone that had the same name as me,” James said in an interview with Local 10′s Bridgette Matter at a prison facility in Doral.
James said this is a case of mistaken identity.
Witnesses reported to police James was the possible suspect, but when police realized James was in jail, they moved onto him. James was picked out in a photo lineup by eye witnesses.
James’ lawyer said when police found her client seven months later, he was arrested for unrelated charges. He was then slapped with a murder charge for McKinnon’s death.
James thought it was a mistake that would be worked out. A mistake, he says, that cost him 32 years of his life.
When police asked James for an alibi, he could not give one.
This was 1990, when GPS tracking that we are used to today, was not something he could lean on.
James could not remember where he was on that random day seven months prior. James did not have a clean record — he had dabbled in drug sales before, but said he was not a killer.
In the months that followed, James was convicted of murder, with prosecutors even weighing the death penalty, though ultimately he was sentenced to life in prison.
James spent the next three decades investigating his own case. In prison, he made a shocking discovery: he found that other Thomas James, who went by Tommy James.
He talked to anyone who would listen and made attempts to appeal his case. He contacted news outlets, but it all fell on deaf ears. Through it all, James maintained his innocence.
“It’s like living a nightmare, and for the last 30 some years I’ve been trying to wake up from it,” James said.
James’ lawyer, Natlie Figgers, said the evidence police had to link her client to the crime scene was shaky at best. There was no DNA evidence link and the nine prints lifted did not match him, either.
“I am 1,000 percent sure my client is innocent,” Figgers said.
In 2021, the State Attorney’s Office Justice Project reopened James’ case. Figgers said the state’s star witness, Walton, recanted her statement.
She was eventually subpoenaed by the State Attorney’s Office to issue a new statement. James also took a polygraph test. He was asked:
Were you involved in the robbery and shooting of Francis McKinnon in any way?Did you shoot Francis McKinnon?Were you physically in the apartment when Francis McKinnon was shot?
James answered “no” to those questions, and no deception was found.
Figgers said he is scheduled to be released from prison, and will soon face a judge. His sentenced is expected to be vacated.
At the end of Local 10 News’ interview, James said he was cautiously optimistic he would get out.
“This is the closest I’ve got,” he said. “I can actually smell it.”