The Tragic Case of the Wrong Thomas James Is Finally Righted
Thomas James walked into Miami’s Richard E. Gerstein Justice building shortly after 11 o’clock in the morning yesterday wearing a red inmate uniform, his head shaved smooth. Within the hour he was putting on street clothes for the first time in 32 years and walking out into the bright afternoon. Prosecutors had moved to vacate Thomas’s 1991 murder conviction following a year-long review of his case. That review followed a GQ story I published last July that uncovered evidence showing James was the victim of mistaken identity.
James’s journey to this point had been incredible. Even though police never talked to him, he was charged with murder in a 1990 apartment robbery in Miami, because, as he later found out, he had the same name as the suspect they were looking for. It was a simple and cruel error with devastating consequences. James was sentenced to life in jail, where he began to investigate his case, and then exhausted his appeals trying to point out the mistake that had landed him there. From behind bars, he improbably located the namesake suspect the police never found — an extraordinary discovery that helped set into motion the events that would culminate in his release.
Yet the end to James’ confinement came abruptly and almost anti-climatically. After months and months of investigation, the State Attorney’s Office suddenly notified James’s lawyer, Natlie Figgers, on Tuesday that they would announce their decision in the case the next day. On Wednesday, after stating “we have determined that Thomas Raynard James is actually innocent,” Deputy Chief Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban asked Miami Dade Circuit Court Judge Miguel de la O to “vacate the judgment and allow him to be freed.”
The judge talked a little about how “bittersweet” the moment was for both James, who lost so much of his life, and for the family of the victim, who now don’t have justice. Then he granted the state’s motion. “Mr. James, at this time you have no further business in front of this court,” he said. It was over. James’s long journey to prove his innocence, which would have broken lesser men, had ended. He was a free man. He stood up to start another journey into a world very different from the one he left.
James would not be going back to prison to collect any of his belongings. Everything important to him he took to court that morning: pictures, notes on a book he wants to write, notes on businesses he wants to start, some legal documents. Three decades stuffed in a blue mesh bag. As he changed out of his jail clothes for the last time at the State Attorney’s Office across the street from the courthouse, he was briefly and literally emerging naked into a new world.
His family had brought new threads for him to wear. A gray sweatshirt, a t-shirt with “Versace” on it, dark slacks, new leather tennis shoes. It must have felt good. Back in the day, when James was awaiting trial in a Miami jail, families were allowed to drop off street clothes for inmates to wear. Sammy Wilson, who served time with James, remembers a young man who kept up appearances. James “always dressed fresh,” Wilson told me. “His pants, his shirt, his shoes always matched. He liked that Yankees blue. He was GQ.”
Wilson, a gravel-voiced cynic, played an integral part in helping James, speaking to him regularly throughout his incarceration. He’s the one who told me about the case and put me in touch with James, who had been reaching out to media for years with no luck. Wilson was in the courtroom Wednesday for the hearing. “Damndest thing,” he recalled. “When they announce he free, tears came out of my eyes. I didn’t even cry when I went to prison. Man, I must be getting soft.”
James didn’t cry. After suffering for so long, he is careful not to let his emotions overwhelm him. I know because I’ve been talking to him for two years now as we shepherded his story into the light, then waited to see if anything would happen. I was not in Miami for the hearing, but I made him tell me in detail his movements that day. Some of that was cover. Given the magnitude of his injustice, the emotionally safe spot for both of us has always been digging for facts. Now was no different, except instead of witnesses, it was about the weather.
James stepped from the State Attorney’s Office into a bright, sunny Miami afternoon, with a cooling breeze. What were those first moments of freedom like? “It was myriad emotions all at one time,” he said. Was there an overriding one?
“Joy, it gotta be joy. A sigh of relief,” he said. “Everything hasn’t sunk in yet, it’s been a long time.”
It has. A very long time.
The road to James’ unjust incarceration is complicated … and not. It boils down to a 1990 apartment robbery that left 57-year-old Francis McKinnon dead from a gunshot wound to the head. From there, a Metro-Dade Police detective named Kevin Conley heard from witnesses and the tip line that “Thomas James” was involved. So he went to the records department at headquarters and pulled up a mug shot of a Thomas James. (He later said he didn’t remember if there were any other mug shots with the same name.) One witness, who had never met James before, identified him as the shooter. There was no other evidence against him, no fingerprints, footprints, DNA, or ballistics. He met his public defender about three times before trial.
I started looking into the case in March of 2020 after speaking with Wilson, who had been a prior street source. I talked to James, who guided me through his version of events; to witnesses; and eventually to the neighborhood man he was confused with, the other Thomas “Tommy” James, who had a history of robbery. The other James admitted to me that he was the one police were actually looking for, even though he couldn’t have committed the crime because he was in jail at the time, which I confirmed. (Another suspect, who is already in prison on unrelated charges, has been identified by the State’s Attorneys office.) I went over statements and depositions to identify all the moments in which it was clear witnesses were talking about a different Thomas James. All the moments police, prosecutors and even the defense attorney missed. All of those moments that conspired to put a poor black man represented by a harried public defender in prison for life after a trial that lasted two and a half days, with no evidence other than an eyewitness who didn’t know Jay but picked him out of a police lineup.
In March of 2021 I contacted prosecutors and alerted them to what was in the story. In June they opened their investigation. It was a long wait from there. Key to keeping attention on the case was Al Singleton, a retired homicide detective with the Miami-Dade Police Department who read my story. Singleton was in homicide when McKinnon was killed, but he didn’t remember the case, let alone work it. A few years ago he had “reluctantly and recently come to the conclusion that we convict a lot more innocent people than we ever imagined,” and he started talking to prosecutors at the State’s Attorney’s Office, only to find they knew nothing about the case or the story.
His outrage grew as he began contacting county officials, police and prosecutors, and found no sense of urgency. His masterstroke of disruption was contacting Melba Pearson, a civil rights attorney, law professor and prosecutor who ran (and lost) on a justice reform platform in the last State’s Attorney election. She was as alarmed as he was and contacted James’s attorney about organizing a press conference to put pressure on the prosecutors (Figgers withdrew support for it at the last minute). Pearson rolled on, holding a symposium on the case at Florida International University, generating coverage and a “day of action,” and eventually cooperating with Figgers’ on a streetside rally for James.
The State Attorney’s Office seemed to take offense that civil rights advocates might not trust their institution, and pushed back against the perception they were dragging things out. Prosecutors released their report the day of James’s hearing. But to their credit, they did a thorough job. They confirmed the suspect’s death, and interviewed the other Thomas “Tommy” James, leading to identification of the last suspect. (Tommy told me he didn’t know who the shooter was, but I suspected differently). There currently is not enough evidence to charge that man in McKinnon’s death. The final piece of the puzzle came when the main witness recanted her testimony. She no longer believed it was Thomas James she saw in the apartment that night.
In the end, Pearson and Singleton believe their pressure campaign worked, while State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle maintains her office held its ground against outside pressure, and took the time needed to do a thorough investigation. At this point, it’s hard to argue with the results. James is free. Justice of sorts is served. And although this is beyond bittersweet for James, a terrible wrong has been made right.
On that sunny afternoon of freedom, James’s family, his mother Doris, his cousins Santay, Charles and Sankavia, and his legal team whisked him over the causeway straddling Biscayne Bay to the Miami Beach restaurant Yardbird. There, surrounded by those who have stayed with him through a terrible journey, he ordered his first meal as a free man – country fried chicken with mashed potatoes and sweet corn.