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Thomas James

Other Florida Exonerations
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At about 7:30 p.m. on January 17, 1990, two armed men entered an apartment on South Dixie Highway in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, Florida. One man had a mask pulled over his face. The other wore a cap and his face was visible. They demanded money and began rifling through the purse of a woman named Dorothy Walton, whose mother, Ethra McKinnon, lived in the apartment with her husband, 57-year-old Francis McKinnon.

Suddenly, Francis McKinnon emerged from a back bedroom with a gun. The man with the cap shot McKinnon in the head and killed him. Walton then pointed the men to a container on the table, which held $300-$400. They grabbed the container and left.

Officers with the Miami-Dade County Police Department responded to the shooting and began interviewing witnesses. Along with the McKinnons and Walton, four other people were inside the apartment at the time of the robbery: Johnny Walton, Dorothy’s husband; and three children, Jasmine Byrd, Lance Jean Jacques, and Robert Smith. The apartment was a collection point for a numbers game, and some of the children had been there placing bets for their parents.

The police also talked to neighbors in the apartment complex. Regina Ortiz said she saw two young Black men running from the apartment. Ortiz said that she knew one of the men, Vincent Williams, from school. His nickname was “Dog.” She said the other man was Tommy James. Separately, Crime Stoppers tips came into the police department, naming “Dog,” “Tommy James,” and “Thomas James” from the Coconut Grove area as the assailants.

Armed with this information, the police began pulling mugshots of persons with these names or nicknames to show the victims and witnesses. The first “Dog” they pulled was for a suspect with a different name, but after the police found the right photo, Ortiz and Joy Thompson identified Williams as the man they saw running near the apartment. Separately, Detective Kevin Conley found a photo in the police database for 22-year-old Thomas Raynard James, who had a conviction for drug possession but no violent crimes. He lived about 30 minutes north of Coconut Grove.

Over the course of two days, January 18 and 19, 1990, Conley showed the victims and witnesses photo lineups with Williams and James. Of the persons inside the apartment, Dorothy Walton was the only witness who identified James as the man who shot McKinnon. Ortiz and Thompson, who both knew Williams, picked him out of the lineup, but they didn’t identify James. Another neighbor in the complex, Larry Miller, identified James as the man who asked him for a cigarette just before the robbery happened.

The police did not issue an arrest warrant for Williams. A later review said that officers didn’t believe they had probable cause because they mistakenly believed that no witnesses placed him inside the apartment or running directly from the apartment. Officers interviewed James’s mother in late January. She said she hadn’t seen her son. Police issued an arrest warrant for James on June 13, 1990.

By then, James was awaiting trial on a weapons charge from an arrest on May 9, 1990. He had given the name “Jay Robinson,” and then failed to appear in court. Only after he was arrested again on July 19, 1990, did court officials figure out that he was wanted for murder in McKinnon’s death. He was charged with first-degree murder, robbery with a firearm, armed burglary, and aggravated assault with a firearm.

James went to trial in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court in January 1991. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the crime. James was not found to be the source of any fingerprints recovered at the apartment. In addition, the Luger Tec-9 that police found on James was reported as inconsistent with the murder weapon. Ethra McKinnon testified but did not make an identification. Miller, who had cognitive difficulties, testified that he had identified James prior to the trial. But he could not make an identification in the courtroom.

Walton identified James as the man who shot McKinnon. She said the apartment kitchen was well-lit and James was three to four feet away. “I’m positive of it,” she said. “I will never forget his face. I will never forget his eyes. I see him now.” Ortiz did not testify. In a pre-trial deposition, she said that her initial statement to police about actually seeing James was wrong. She said she had only heard other people in the apartment complex say it was James.

The children in the apartment also didn’t testify; Owen Chin, the public defender representing James, asked for them to be excluded because they had not appeared at depositions. Chin did not present any witness. James did not testify. At the time, Florida trial procedure said that defendants who presented evidence but did not testify lost the right to make the final argument to jurors.

The jury convicted James on all four charges on January 11, 1991. Judge Fredricka Smith sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison.

James began a series of appeals. In one petition, an inmate named Andre Slaton said another inmate he believed to be Williams confessed to committing a murder during a robbery at numbers house in Miami. In a second petition, an inmate named Tarver Dixon said that Williams confessed his involvement, including shooting McKinnon. Dixon said that Williams told him: “I had to bust Pop for being a hero.”

Separately, James submitted a motion for a new trial based on an affidavit from Jasmine Byrd, one of the children at the numbers house. She said she had seen a flyer placed by James looking for witnesses, and that James was not the man she saw shoot McKinnon.

These motions were denied, either for a lack of reliability or for not being newly discovered evidence.

While incarcerated, James had picked up hints confirming how he had become a suspect. One inmate told him the police confused him with another Thomas James.

When James reviewed pre-trial depositions, he noticed that Ethra McKinnon kept referring to a woman named Mary as the mother of the Thomas James she knew. James’s mother was named Doris. He asked a prison clerk to run down the information for another inmate named Thomas James, serving a life sentence for armed robbery. That Thomas James, who was frequently called Tommy James, had lived only a few miles from Coconut Grove, and his mother’s name was Mary.

James also reached out to the Innocence Project of Florida, which investigated his case sporadically over many years, including interviewing Dorothy Walton and Tommy James. The organization closed the case in 2020, after determining it did not have sufficient information to proceed.

In 2020, writer Tristram Korten heard from a source about James’s case and his claims of a wrongful conviction. He began reporting a story for GQ magazine, which ran in July 2021. In March 2021, as Korten finished the piece, he contacted the office of Kathryn Fernandez Rundle, the State Attorney for Miami-Dade County, and shared with prosecutors some of his findings, which cast doubt on the integrity of Thomas James’s conviction. The office’s Justice Project opened its own investigation.

In his reporting, Korten also interviewed Tommy James. “I know the other Thomas James was arrested by accident, by mistake,” he said. “The officers were looking for me.” But that James was in jail at the time, although he told Korten that he and Williams were in the business of robbing drug houses and number joints at the time, which was why witnesses assumed he was involved and why McKinnon’s apartment was on the list. James said he knew the place well.

“I been there. My mama’s been there. We were related in some way,” he said.

The State Attorney’s Office’s investigation interviewed many of the persons Korten interviewed. Tommy James told them that he didn’t know the other Thomas James, but that James’s occupation as a drug dealer would have made him a target, not a possible accomplice. Later, Tommy James told Natalie Figgers, an attorney for Thomas James, that a man named Derrick Evans was with Williams during the robbery and had shot McKinnon. Evans confirmed that he knew Tommy James and Williams, but not Thomas James. He declined to discuss the case with investigators from the state attorney’s office.

Investigators were unable to interview Williams, who died November 21, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Dorothy Walton, the sole eyewitness at trial, had been interviewed by the Innocence Project in 2019. She didn’t waver in her identification but said that it would be a tragedy if the wrong person was in prison. In her first telephone conversations with the State Attorney’s Office, in the spring of 2021, she said she had nothing further to say and wanted to put the events behind her.

On April 7, 2022, Figgers told prosecutors that Walton had recanted to her. Investigators then issued a subpoena for Walton, who made a statement on April 12, 2022, stating that she might have been mistaken in her identification of Thomas James. She did not say how long she had held this belief or how she had arrived at this conclusion, except to say that it had occurred “years ago.”

During his interview with the State Attorney’s Office, Thomas James said he had no reason to rob anybody as at the time of the shooting he was making good money dealing drugs. In 1990, he was living at home with his mother, but he said she never told him the police were looking for him and didn’t know he was a suspect in a murder until months later. That’s why he had no alibi. He said he rarely went to Coconut Grove.

James took a polygraph test on April 25, 2022. The administrator said he was being truthful in his answers about not being involved in the death of Francis McKinnon.

On April 27, 2022, the State Attorney’s Office filed a motion to vacate James’s conviction. It said: “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 the defendant’s photograph being included in a lineup, and set in motion a mistaken identification.”

It further said, “In the final analysis, at best, the evidence that the defendant committed this crime is unclear and unconvincing, and at worst it is just plain wrong.”

Judge Miguel M de la O of Miami-Dade Circuit court vacated the convictions that same day, and later granted a dismissal of the charges.

“If there weren’t so many people in there, I’d probably have fainted,” James said. “It actually hit me emotionally. I realized it was actually happening.” He thanked Walton for “finally allowing her conscience to get the best of her. I forgave her a long time ago because I don’t think she done it intentionally.” Rundle said: “We have a sword to go after those that terrorize, hurt, harm, rape, kill others. But we have a shield, and the shield is to protect the victims, to protect the community, but also to protect the innocent. That’s what we got to do today.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/6/2022
Last Updated: 5/6/2022
State:Florida
County:Miami-Dade
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Assault, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1990
Convicted:1991
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:25 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No