Thomas Raynard James has now spent more than half of his life in prison. Over 31 years were stolen from him by a wrongful conviction based on a series of mistakes that led to a mistaken identification. Never once did he give up trying to prove his innocence, and now Miami-Dade, Florida, prosecutors have concluded that he was innocent all along.
It all started when two men went to an apartment in Coconut Grove in January 1990. According to police, the men robbed the place and one fatally shot Francis McKinnon. Tipsters and witnesses said the shooter was named Tommy or Thomas James.
Police immediately focused on this Mr. James, then 23. They included his photo in an identification array to see if an eyewitness could identify him. She did, stating that she was positive he was the shooter. Although there was no physical evidence tying Mr. James to the crime scene, prosecutors charged him with armed robbery and first-degree murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars.
Eyewitness testimony, however, is not always accurate, even when the witness claims to be certain. Memories change over time and people are more susceptible to suggestion than we like to admit. The photo lineup may have been suggestive, for example, if the only person in the lineup who resembled the suspect was Mr. James.
Indeed, over time the eyewitness who identified Mr. James became less sure she was right. At first, she was reluctant to say anything, but as a Christian woman, she eventually voiced her concerns.
When prosecutors subpoenaed her earlier this year, she stated that she “now believes she made a mistake” in her ID.
Case reopened after GQ story
According to the New York Times, Mr. James and his family had been actively investigating the crime and attempting to prove his innocence for years. However, they had little traction until Tristam Korten published an investigation into the conviction in GQ magazine. That was apparently what prompted prosecutors to reconsider the case.
“He was always hopeful that one day someone would see the truth and the facts and would come to his defense,” says Mr. James’s attorney. “As of today, he’s grateful that people listened to his cries, and he’s just grateful to have the opportunity to live his life.”
The police ultimately identified another Tommy James and two other men as possible suspects in these crimes.
Now, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office says that Mr. James should never have been in prison because there was reasonable doubt in his case. Furthermore, “Thomas Raynard James is actually innocent of the charges.”
Once again, it was journalists who helped bring justice to a man who was repeatedly refused justice from inside the world of America’s criminal justice system. Sadly, it is often only after a case receives critical public scrutiny from nonlawyers that those who work within the system feel compelled to act.