US: After 31 years in prison, a man is freed over ‘mistaken identification’

US: After 31 years in prison, a man is freed over ‘mistaken identification’

World News

Prosecutors said it appeared to be a “chance coincidence.”

After two men entered an apartment in the Coconut Grove section of Miami on Jan. 17, 1990, and one of them fatally shot a man during a robbery, witnesses and tipsters said the gunman was named Thomas James or Tommy James.

That led police to put a photo of Thomas Raynard James in a lineup, setting in motion a case of mistaken identification that led James, then 23, to be convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery Jan. 11, 1991. He was sentenced to life in prison.

But James never gave up trying to prove his innocence. He investigated his case while in prison, and his mother, Doris Strong, knocked on doors, looking for answers, according to James’ lawyer, Natlie G. Figgers.

On Wednesday, their efforts were finally validated when a judge approved a motion by prosecutors to vacate James’ conviction and sentence, setting him free after he had spent more than half of his life — over 31 years — in prison.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said an investigation that it conducted in cooperation with Figgers determined that not only did reasonable doubt exist in the conviction, but also that “Thomas Raynard James is actually innocent of the charges.”

“In brief, 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 as ‘Thomas James,’ or ‘Tommy James’” led to his “mistaken identification” as the gunman who fatally shot Francis McKinnon, prosecutors wrote in court papers asking for the conviction to be thrown out.

Just before he was released Wednesday, James, 55, still handcuffed and dressed in a red prison uniform, appeared at a news conference with his mother and prosecutors. He did not speak, but Figgers said he was “eager to start his life” and hoped to start a nonprofit to help others who have been wrongfully convicted.

Figgers credited Tristram Korten, whose investigation of James’ conviction was published in GQ in July 2021, with helping to bring the case to the attention of prosecutors after years of unsuccessful efforts by James and his family.

“He was always hopeful that one day someone would see the truth and the facts and would come to his defense,” Figgers said. “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.”

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade state attorney, said the case pointed to the vulnerability of eyewitness identification. James’ conviction rested primarily on the testimony of Dorothy Walton, McKinnon’s stepdaughter, who had been in the apartment and had identified James as the gunman after police put his photo in a lineup.

“I’m positive of it,” she testified during the trial, according to court papers. “I will never forget his face. I will never forget his eyes.”

No physical evidence tied James or anyone else to the crime, prosecutors said.

Over the years, Walton began to waver in her certainty about James, prosecutors said. Although reluctant to rehash the case and fearful that James could take revenge on her if he were released, she eventually “voiced concerns that maybe she had made a mistake” and said she “wouldn’t want to go to her grave with the possibility that she may have made a mistake,” court papers said. She told investigators that, as a “good Christian woman,” she would pray on it.

On April 12, after prosecutors subpoenaed her to testify under oath, Walton told investigators that she “now believes she made a mistake” in her identification of James and that she did not attribute her change to any “outside influence,” prosecutors said.

Fernandez Rundle called it “an unfortunate mistaken identity case.”

“Around the country, eyewitness testimony, absent any forensic evidence, is always vulnerable,” she said.

Fernandez Rundle added that a different man named Tommy James told investigators that he had been eyeing McKinnon’s apartment with his cousin, Vincent Williams, for a possible robbery in the days before the murder.

That Tommy James, however, was behind bars when McKinnon was killed, she said. Williams later told Tommy James that he and another man had committed the robbery and murder. Williams has since died. The other man has denied any involvement.

While Fernandez Rundle called James’ release from prison a “joyous” occasion for his family, she said it was frustrating for McKinnon’s relatives “because what they believed was a just result for the loss of their loved one has been stolen from them.”

“We believe one of the two men who did this will never be held accountable for the loss of their loved one,” Fernandez Rundle said, referring to Williams. “The second, we’re just not sure. We will continue to look at it as a cold case.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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