Guilty until proven innocent: The wrongful conviction of Thomas Raynard James part 2

As Thomas Raynard James sat in his prison cell in South Bay Correctional Facility about 80 miles from Miami reviewing legal papers and seeking freedom, author and journalist Tristram Korten had lunch with an old contact named Sammy Wilson at a Popeye’s restaurant on 79th Street. 

It was March of 2020, and Korten wanted to discuss Florida’s fight to grant felons their voting rights. Voters had overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment two years before, but public officials were dragging their feet. Korten had followed the issue for decades and recently attended a seminar on justice reform.

At the end of their lunch, Korten offhandedly asked Wilson, who was unemployed at the time, if he knew anyone who claimed to have been wrongfully convicted. Without hesitation, Wilson described the case of Thomas Raynard James. 

“Shoot, I know this guy in South Bay Correctional who’s been saying he’s innocent since the day I met him,” he told Korten. 

Korten had a long history in Miami. For years areporter and columnist for Miami New Times, he had published work in the Miami Herald, The Atlantic, and GQ, and authored a well received book, “Into the Storm,” as well. The beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic had derailed many of his story ideas and plans, so the bearded father of two focused instead on local issues in Miami. 

Wilson told Korten that he had met James back in 1991 while the latter was awaiting the trial that led to his conviction. They had stayed in contact through the years, so Wilson said he was intimately aware of the fight for justice. Soon after the Popeye’s meeting, he gave Korten a way to contact James. 

And so began the investigation. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, everything was shut down, including the courts, so reviewing the files of James’ case manually wasn’t easy. Moreover, this was a 30-year-old case, so many of the people involved, the witnesses, investigators, officers, prosecutors, and witnesses were scattered, retired or deceased. 

So Korten contacted James, who told him that the Innocence Project of Florida, a nonprofit organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, had his files. James had sent it to them in his bid for freedom. Korten requested the files but was denied. Soon, though, the Innocence Project decided not to pursue the case, citing a lack of sufficient evidence. They sent the files to James, who then forwarded them to Korten. What the reporter found was astonishing.

“When he told his public defender that [his conviction was] a mistake, I don’t know that the public defender believed him,” Korten said. “The whole system assumed guilt before anything.” 

Korten decided he would try to track down first-hand sources. There had been three children in the apartment the night of the murder not mentioned in initial reports. One of them, Josmine Byrd, had signed a notarized statement confirming James was not the shooter. She was difficult to track down, but her lawyer, André Rouviere, confirmed the document. Korten wrote a letter to another child witness, Lance Jean-Jacques, who was in jail awaiting trial for attempted murder. Nothing came of that. 

Then he tracked down Dorothy Walton, granddaughter of Ethra McKinnon, whose husband was killed that night. He visited her home, but a request for interview was swiftly denied. He tried speaking with the now-retired lead detective of the investigation, who declined an interview through an intermediary.

But Korten didn’t give up and finally made progress thanks to Cheryl Holcomb, whose mother lived in the apartment complex and had been there the night of the murder. Holcomb recalled being in the parking lot when the gunshots rang out. While she didn’t see anyone running from the scene, she did recall hearing people say the perpetrators were Thomas James and Vincent Williams. When she saw Thomas Raynard James’s mugshot, though, she she knew it wasn’t the man she thought had committed the murder. 

Next Korten confirmed there was indeed another Thomas James, who went by the name Tommy and had been serving a life sentence since 1996 for a series of armed robberies. 

On October 22, 2020, the writer met with Tommy James at the Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach, more than 250 miles north of Miami. He was almost a quarter century removed from the 23-year-old who had been sentenced to life in prison. His numerous gold teeth weren’t threatening, but rather battle scars from his misguided youth. 

He was a 47-year-old who sympathized with the man who shared his name. But, he said, he hadn’t been directly involved in the shooting because he had been arrested the day before. He had only scoped out the apartment where the murder had occurred.

“Tell him I’m sorry, man,” Tommy James told Korten. “I feel bad about it now and I want to make it right.” 

Korten was also interested in a man who witnesses had placed at the scene of the crime, Vincent Cephus Williams a.k.a “Dog.” Three years after the murder, he had been convicted of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and spent 11 years in prison. He had died in 2019 in Las Vegas. 

He had never been questioned about the crime. Korten couldn’t understand why.

“This is a remaining mystery of this story,” Korten said. “How did the system miss him? It’s very, very strange.” 

There were a lot of dead ends, but also tantalizing hints. As Korten gathered his evidence, some friends of Thomas Raynard James were raising money for his defense. One of them approached a foundation connected to the family of Natlie Figgers, a personal injury attorney who was just two years out of Nova Southeastern University law school at the time. 

Figgers was apprehensive about taking the case. She knew James really needed a criminal lawyer. However, once she learned that almost no one would take his case due to the family’s inability to pay the required fees, she agreed to read up on it. Figgers, who was just a few weeks away from giving birth to her son, spoke with Korten about the evidence he had been gathering and became convinced of James’ innocence. She agreed to take the case. 

“She was eight and a half months pregnant when she learned of my situation,” James said. “When she went into labor, she had my documents. She made her husband bring all of them to the hospital while she was in labor because she had reached the conclusion already, based on her research, that I was innocent.” 

Just six weeks after giving birth, Figgers put her plan into action. She followed Korten’s lead and on her own tracked down witnesses, detectives, relatives, and anyone who had anything to do with the investigation and trial. She said she logged more than 2,000 hours researching and interviewing people to build James’ case. 

Meanwhile Korten was completing his story for GQ Magazine. Before doing so, though, he reached out to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office’s Justice Project, which examines potential wrongful convictions and laid out his evidence. That was spring. In June a spokesman from the office called him back to report that they were “actively investigating, and … waiting for additional materials to be supplied to us from Mr. James.”

The waiting period took a toll on Korten. On occasion, he spoke with James by phone. 

“I’d hang up or he’d hang up and I’d go have a barbeque with my family and it felt wrong,” Korten said. “How can you relax and enjoy yourself knowing that these injustices are going on?” He continued.

The article, titled The Tragic Case of the Wrong Thomas James, was published in GQ magazine on July 28, 2021. 

After the article’s publication, Al Singleton, a former Miami-Dade homicide detective got in touch with Korten. He mentioned he was outraged by the injustice done to James. He was even more infuriated with the State Attorney’s office’s lack of action. 

Singleton began a grassroots campaign to bring the case to resolution. With the help of Melba Pearson, an activist and former prosecutor who had run against Kathy Fernandez Rundle in 2020, they held press conferences and issued press releases. Their goal was to pressure the state attorney to speed up the review. Pearson even held a symposium on the case at Florida International University that generated attention. 

Nine months and one day after the article came out, Thomas Raynard James’ life sentence was thrown out and he was declared wrongfully convicted and given his freedom back. Thaty was  April 27, 2022. Surrounded by friends and family whose faith never wavered, James took his first breath of fresh air in over three decades.

James’ release was abrupt and anticlimactic. After 32 years, you would think the scene would resemble something you might see in a movie. The reality was much more mundane. Figgers was notified by the State Attorney’s Office that a decision had been made and would be announced the following day. The announcement came and went, and James headed to court to have his sentence vacated. 

Judge Miguel de la O shared some kind words and sympathized with him. James took off his prison clothes for the last time and walked outside with over three decades worth of mementos that all fit inside of a bag. 

“They told them to take the chains off of me and there was a moment of embrace and all these hugs and tears,” James recalls. 

“It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve done,” Korten said. “But I told him, ‘Look, you never have to say thank you to me. You’re the one who got screwed over. I’m honored to do this story.’ ” He continued. 

The lawyer, Figgers, told NBC News something similar: “This case really shaped me in a different way on how I take on cases,” she said. “And I like the fact that I’m going to treat every case differently moving forward, making sure that I listen closely to my client, more than ever before.” 

While finally freed and happy to be surrounded by family, the grass hasn’t been much greener on the other side for James. The last time he was breathing free air, George H.W. Bush was president, Michael Jordan had just started winning championships, Rodney King had recently been beaten by the LAPD, and the Super Nintendo entertainment system had first been released. 

In other words, James was pulled out of one world and thrust into a completely different one. 

“I am still struggling with trying to get health insurance,” James said.  “Some of the stuff is structural stuff, just trying to get my life back to a sense of normalcy.” 

During his later years in prison, James wrote a book. He released it after his release. Titled If the walls could talk: would you listen?, the introduction promises that it “takes readers on a journey inside the Florida criminal injustice system, a journey that reveals sinister plots and plans.” He is also working on a documentary to tell his story. Outside of that, the Thomas James who went into the penitentiary is not the same one who came out. He is no longer the wide-eyed young man with dreams of opening up established businesses. 

These days, James is just trying to get by. Under Florida law, he is ineligible for reparations for his time in prison. He is looking to start a non-profit organization that caters to inmates and wants to establish a clothing line and increase his book sales.

As for Korten, he is living in New England with his family these days. Thomas James’ case clearly left a huge imprint on him, and he is now working on another wrongful conviction case, along with other projects regarding environmental issues. Still, he finds the time to keep in touch with James, checking on his progress toward finding a job and if he’s getting his checkups at the doctor. 

While the road to exoneration wasn’t easy, James continues to hold his head high and advises against throwing in the towel when difficult circumstances arise. 

“Whenever you find yourself going through hell, my advice would always be, whatever you do,  don’t stop. ‘Cause if you stop, you’re stuck in it. If you keep going, chances are you’ll end up on the other side,” James said. “So I don’t care if you went around it, you went over it, you went under it, or you went through it. One thing I do know is you’ll get past it.”

Tynisa Senior is a senior at Florida International University majoring in Digital Communications and Media with a minor in Social Media and E-Marketing Analytics. It is her passion for news and reporting that drives her to pursue a career in anchoring. She loves a challenge and is always looking forward to new opportunities to better her skillset.

Ivan Espinoza is a junior majoring in digital journalism. Ivan is interested in a career in sports journalism with an end goal of becoming a basketball analyst.