Florida Man Exonerated After 32 Years in Prison Over Mistaken Identity

Thomas Raynard James has been released from prison after serving 32 years for a murder he never committed after an eyewitness identified the wrong person.

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Thomas Raynard James was freed from prison Wednesday after serving 32 years behind bars over a case of mistaken identity, CNN reports.  

James, 55, was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to life in prison with a 25-year minimum for the murder of Francis McKinnon during a home invasion in Coral Gables the year prior. He was 23 years old at the time. While there was no physical evidence that could prove James was guilty, his life sentence hinged on people picking his photo out of a lineup and an eyewitness account from Dorothy Walton, stepdaughter of McKinnon. “I will never forget his face. I will never forget his eyes,” Walton said, according to the motion quoted in a 1991 article of the Miami Herald

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office Justice Project spent the last year pouring over 20,000 pages worth of documents and interviewing individuals connected with James’ case after Walton struck a different tone when she said there may have made a mistake in identifying James during a 2019 interview with investigators for the Innocence Project of Florida. 

According to court documents, one of the two witnesses who picked James in the lineup later testified in court that the person they picked was not in the court when James was sitting across from them. 

James delivered a sworn statement to the SAO Justice Project in Jan. 2022 claiming he has never shot anyone or been to the apartment complex where the fatal shooting occurred. He also took a polygraph exam in which it was determined that he was telling the truth about if he was physically in the apartment when McKinnon was shot, if he was the one who shot McKinnon, and if he was involved at all in the crime. 

“We have determined that Thomas Raynard James is actually innocent,” Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban told the court. Charles McKinnon, son of the victim, also spoke, saying he wasn’t entirely convinced of these latest findings and couldn’t support the court’s decision, adding, “Mr. James, I don’t want to see you in jail if you’re innocent.” 

James’ release comes after over 10 motions and appeals to get his sentence overturned were denied. When asked what will be the first thing he does as a free man, James responded, “Go enjoy my family and eat chicken!”

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