Man in Prison for 31 Years Finds Savior in Novice Attorney

Natlie Figgers, out of law school just 2 years, helps free wrongly convicted Thomas Raynard James
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 27, 2022 8:42 AM CDT
Man in Prison for 31 Years Finds Savior in Novice Attorney
Attorney Natlie Figgers talks about her case to free Thomas "Jay" Raynard James on April 27 in Miami.   (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

It started with a murder in Miami, a crime that sent Thomas Raynard James to prison for more than three decades. In April, however, a judge vacated James' conviction and set him free, thanks to the efforts of an attorney just two years out of law school who was determined to prove James' innocence. Per the New York Times, Francis McKinnon was fatally shot on Jan. 17, 1990, in his Coconut Grove apartment, and James took the fall for it, found guilty a year later at the age of 23. Even though there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime, witnesses had said a "Thomas James" or "Tommy James" was the shooter, and an eyewitness—McKinnon's stepdaughter—picked James out of a lineup and insisted he was the gunman.

James was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. But he continued to maintain his innocence, and in 2020, three decades after he'd been sent to prison, friends approached Natlie Figgers, a 30-something Miami-area personal injury attorney in only her second year of practice, to ask if she'd help. "Once I saw the evidence and reviewed the case, it was pretty clear that a mistake had occurred, and I was pretty flabbergasted that he submitted that many appeals and they didn't see the same thing," Figgers told ABC News last month. Among the evidence that Figgers unearthed was that the "Tommy James" witnesses tied to the shooting was a different Tommy James (though that man was in prison at the time of the murder), as well as other "overwhelming evidence of his innocence," she tells NBC News.

The media outlet details the thousands of hours of research Figgers devoted to the case, as well as the dozens of people she interviewed. She even talked to McKinnon's stepdaughter, who over the years had begun to suspect she'd made a mistake in identifying James. On April 27, thanks to Figgers' efforts, a Miami judge exonerated James and released him from prison. "I owe her my life," James, now 55, says of Figgers, who credits a 2021 GQ profile by Tristram Korten of also calling attention to the case. So who actually killed McKinnon? NBC Miami notes investigators are now looking at two other men, Vincent Williams and Derrick Evans, though Williams has since died. Evans is currently incarcerated for another crime. Much more on Figgers' dogged pursuit of justice for James here, while the Atlanta Black Star details why James isn't entitled to compensation for all that time wrongly spent imprisoned. (More uplifting news stories.)

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