Criminal Justice

Thomas Raynard James Sure Seems to Have Been Wrongfully Convicted. So Why Is He Still in Prison?

Thomas Raynard James (left) and Thomas "Tommy" James
Thomas Raynard James (left) and Thomas "Tommy" James Photos via Florida Department of Corrections
It has been 175 days since journalist Tristram Korten alerted the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office that it has case files that could exonerate a man who appears to have been wrongfully convicted for a 1990 murder. And yet Thomas Raynard James remains locked up at the Okeechobee Correctional Institution, where he has been since March 6, 1991.

In "The Tragic Case of the Wrong Thomas James," an investigative report published in GQ earlier this summer, Korten writes that Coral Gables Police, Metro-Dade Police (now the Miami-Dade Police Department), and the state attorney's office investigated, arrested, and tried the wrong Thomas James for the January 1990 murder of Francis McKinnon.

Thomas "Tommy" James and Thomas Raynard James are both Black men of roughly the same age who were living in Miami-Dade County in the early '90s. Though the former was friends with one of the suspects and lived nearby and the latter had no connection to any of the victims or suspects, no history of violent crimes, and lived half an hour away in Liberty City, it was the latter who at age 23 was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life, based on no physical evidence, no confession, and weak eyewitness testimony.

In June, Korten says, Miami-Dade State Attorney spokesperson Ed Griffith told him the agency's Justice Project, which examines wrongful convictions, was "actively investigating" James' case and awaiting "additional materials to be supplied to us from Mr. James." A month later, Griffith confirmed to the Miami Herald that James' attorney had supplied the additional materials and that the "review is proceeding."

But it remains unclear how the review is progressing, how much longer it will take, and why James remains incarcerated.

The state attorney's office did not respond to New Times' requests for comment via phone and email. James' attorney, Natlie Figgers, did not respond to New Times' request for comment. A motion for post-conviction relief has not been filed on James' behalf.

"I'm not an activist and I didn't want to be put in that role," Korten tells New Times. "But this seems to be taking an awfully long time when it's right there in black and white, and corroborated by the other Thomas James."

Last week a coalition of groups, including the ACLU of Florida's Greater Miami Chapter, Circle of Brotherhood, Florida Rising, and the NAACP, gathered at the Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall Social and Economic Institute in Liberty City to demand the immediate release of Thomas Raynard James.

“It is unacceptable that a man who served 30 years for a crime he did not commit is continuing to languish in prison,” civil-rights attorney and activist Melba Pearson said in a statement. “The evidence is clear. This is not justice for the family who lost a loved one or to Thomas Raynard James, who has lost nearly half his life to an unjust incarceration.”

Korten writes that on January 17, 1990, two men stormed into an apartment near Coconut Grove and fatally shot Francis McKinnon while robbing the family of roughly $350. Witnesses at the apartment complex identified a man who fled the unit as Vincent "Dog" Williams, and tips identified the other killer as "Thomas James." One caller confirmed that both men were from Coconut Grove.

Francis McKinnon's wife, Ethra, and daughter, Dorothy Walton, later told detectives that they knew Thomas James' mother, a woman named Mary, who is related to them.

When detectives looked up "Thomas James," images of Thomas Raynard James showed up. The other Thomas James was 17 at the time of the murder, and his case files are believed to have been in the juvenile system.

The day after the murder detectives created a photo lineup with images of random men, Vincent "Dog" Williams, and Thomas Raynard James. Two witnesses picked out Williams, but couldn't pick out James. Three other eyewitnesses failed to pick out James either. Dorothy Walton's husband, Johnny, who was present in the apartment during the shooting, didn't ID James. But Dorothy Walton did pick out Thomas Raynard James, as did a "cognitively disadvantaged" can collector.

It took detectives three months to locate Thomas Raynard James, who was brought in on an unrelated gun charge. When he was told he was being charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, armed burglary, and aggravated assault, Thomas Raynard James told Korten, he figured the misunderstanding would eventually be straightened out.

Needless to say, it wasn't.

"[Thomas Raynard James] is super honest, and wouldn't even make up an alibi for the court when he was first arrested because he didn't want to make up something and it be proven false," says Korten. "He was expecting this mistake to be cleared up. He's very smart and spent all this time investigating own case, which has made him a good investigator and succinct communicator."

James appealed his conviction multiple times over the years and was rebuffed each time. Most recently, in 2014, a woman who'd witnessed the shooting as a little girl stated that Thomas Raynard James was not the man she saw shoot Francis McKinnon and that she was willing to testify to that in court.

Meanwhile, Thomas Raynard James learned of the existence of a second Thomas James, who lived in South Miami and was known to hang out with Williams. That Thomas James had a mother named Mary — as McKinnon's wife and daughter had told detectives. (Thomas Raynard James' mother is named Doris.) The other Thomas James had been sentenced to life in prison in an unrelated armed-robbery case and is incarcerated roughly four hours away from Thomas Raynard James at Suwannee Correctional Institution. He has no middle name and goes by Tommy.

“I know the other Thomas James was arrested by accident, by mistake,” Thomas "Tommy" James told Korten. “The officers were looking for me.”

Korten — a Miami New Times alum who was a staff writer in the late 1990s and early 2000s — found that Tommy James couldn't have killed McKinnon either: He was in jail at the time. Though he and Williams were friends, Tommy James told Korten he doesn't know who Williams' accomplice was, nor did he have any information regarding Williams' whereabouts.

The Department of Corrections, on the other hand, knew exactly where Vincent "Dog" Williams was for more than 13 years. In September 1991, he was sentenced to 11 years for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He was released in October 2004. He has never been questioned by law enforcement about his purported role in the McKinnon murder.

"Both Thomas Jameses were sentenced to life in prison," Korten sums up. "And neither of them actually killed a person."
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson