Florida man wrongfully convicted of murder is freed by an attorney fresh out of law school

·8 min read

A Miami-area lawyer was able to transform the life of a man who spent 32 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit — and said her own life has also been transformed in the process.

Thomas Raynard James had been in prison 30 years by the time Natlie Figgers, a lawyer only two years out of law school, was approached by friends of his who were raising money for his defense in 2020. He had been proclaiming his innocence throughout his life sentence for murder.

Figgers, 32, was empathetic but apprehensive — she was a business and personal injury attorney. James’ case required a criminal lawyer. But Figgers learned no one would take his case. The few attorneys who were interested still required fees that made them inaccessible to James, known as “Jay” to his friends.

She agreed to read up on the case weeks before she gave birth to her son. What she read convinced her that she should, despite her lack of experience, try to help James.

And so, just six weeks after her son was born, Figgers began an 18-month investigation that would consume her.

She banged on doors and rang doorbells. She pored over heaps of paperwork. She cold-called people who testified in the 1990 murder of Francis McKinnon and others related to the case, driving hundreds of miles to gather information and  talk to at least 75 people about the case in person. She said she logged more than 2,000 hours researching and interviewing people to build James’ case, pushing aside the car accident and company formation cases she normally takes on.

Image: Thomas Raynard James at home with his mother Doris Strong and lawyer Natlie Figgers in Miami on  June 24, 2022, (Saul Martinez for NBC News)
Image: Thomas Raynard James at home with his mother Doris Strong and lawyer Natlie Figgers in Miami on June 24, 2022, (Saul Martinez for NBC News)

Figgers shared all the information she uncovered with the Conviction Review Unit, an entity under the Florida Justice Institute, established in Miami in 1991 to identify, prevent and reverse wrongful convictions. The review unit assesses the provided evidence and, if a convincing case is made, recommends a person’s release from prison. Figgers piled on the evidence.

And even though she believed she had supplied enough evidence in 2021 for James to walk free, Figgers continued to dig. “I couldn’t stop until he was out,” she said. “So, I kept giving them more. It became overwhelming evidence of his innocence.”

For starters, nine sets of fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime — none belonged to James. Police and prosecutors relied on the testimony of Dorothy Wilson, the victim’s stepdaughter who was there at the time of the murder and who identified James as the shooter.

The reality was another man named Thomas James lived nearby and had a violent criminal past. He was also friends with Vincent Cephas Williams, the other man convicted of robbing McKinnon that night. The Coral Gables police learned those names through a tip line. When they searched “Thomas James” in their criminal database, they instead found Thomas Raynard James, who “toiled in the drug trade,” James said, and had a gun possession charge. Police tagged James as McKinnon’s murderer, despite there being no physical evidence that Thomas Raynard James had been at the scene.

Decades later, Figgers brought forward witnesses who connected the other Thomas James to Williams, the established robber.

James contends that a case of mistaken identity and less-than-thorough police work ruined his life, adding that detectives did not follow up with witnesses’ claims that would have cleared his name. When he was arrested months after the murder, police used  that he could not remember where he was on the night of the crime against him.

Image: (Saul Martinez for NBC News)
Image: (Saul Martinez for NBC News)

“Who remembers where they were on a given night five months ago?” Figgers said.

“I never asked anybody to believe what I was saying,” James said. “What I did was say for any and everybody to simply admit that if what I was saying was true, that I had been wrongly convicted. But the only way you can reach that conclusion is to delve into the depths of my situation. Natlie Figgers did. I owe her my life.”

Figgers, the wife of Freddie Figgers, an inventor and founder of Figgers Communication in Florida, where she had been head of HR, said releasing her emotions helped break the case, especially when in May 2021 she approached Dorothy Wilson, the prosecution’s crucial witness.

“She didn’t want to give any statements,” Figgers said of Wilson. “She didn’t want to talk to people for years. When I went to interview her, she cracked the door open. I knew at that time she was giving me an opportunity to show her why she should do the right thing. It was such an emotional point for me, I couldn’t help but cry to her. And I told her, ‘If God tells you to give me a call when I leave, please give me a call. I’m going to answer. But I’m doing this because he is an innocent person. And I’m doing this because God put me here.’ And I left.

“Ten minutes later, she called me. I was driving. I pulled over. She asked me: ‘Why did you cry like that? Who is he to you? Are you related to him?’ I told her no. She asked, “Is he paying you?’ I said, ‘No. I’m doing this pro bono.’ She asked me how did I know it wasn’t him? I said, ‘Because I know.’ And she said, ‘I know it wasn’t him, too.’”

With that admission and the other evidence Figgers compiled, the last step would be for James to take a polygraph test, corroborating the new evidence. He passed. It was the last convincing evidence the CRU needed to recommend that James be freed.

Finally, on April 27, a judge in Miami ruled that James had been wrongfully imprisoned for 32 years for murder. He was sent home.

Photos taken with visitors including his mother, right, while Thomas Raynard James was incarcerated. (Saul Martinez for NBC News)
Photos taken with visitors including his mother, right, while Thomas Raynard James was incarcerated. (Saul Martinez for NBC News)
Image: (Saul Martinez for NBC News)
Image: (Saul Martinez for NBC News)

James remembered feeling deliriously happy and relieved. He told NBC News, “If a person doesn’t allow the worst thing that can happen to get the best of him … ” His voice trailed off.

“I’m not a better person because of what I went through,” he continued after composing himself. “I’m a different person. I get emotional talking about it; it’s overwhelming. I have emotions running wild, and I think it’s probably going to be that way the rest of my life.”

The same, Figgers said, goes for her. She said she’s also realized that being emotionally connected to her clients’ cases can be effective.

“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.”

Herman Atkins, a Black man in California who was exonerated after spending 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, described attorneys like Figgers and others who take on exoneration cases as “special people.” They have a selflessness and a will to find justice that not every person has. It’s a shame they are needed because of the justice system in America. But if we didn’t have them, none of us who have been unjustly imprisoned would be freed.”

Figgers is quick to point out she was not alone in helping James secure his freedom. Tristram Korten reported an extensive feature for GQ about James’ case in 2021. There was Reid Rubin of the State Attorney’s office in Miami Dade County, who was receptive to the evidence Figgers submitted, and Christine Zahralban, the chief investigator of the Justice Project’s Conviction Review Unit, who worked diligently on the case, Figgers said.

“Sometimes in this process, I doubted myself because I hadn’t done it before,” she said. “So, I just went off my gut and prayer. When I finally heard that he was going to be released — finally, way longer than it should have been — all I could do was say, ‘Thank you, God.’ It felt so real. I knew it was meant to happen.”

James said he lives with his 81-year-old mother and does not leave the house much as he tries to rebuild his life. Under the law, Florida provides a minimum of $50,000 in compensation for every year that someone who is wrongfully convicted is in prison, with a maximum of $2 million. However, a defendant is ineligible to receive compensation if they have been convicted of another violent felony, which James has.

His family launched a website, Justice for Jay, and started an online fundraising campaign since Florida law prohibits him from filing a lawsuit against the state. He also released a book, “If These Walls Could Talk, Would You Listen?” about his time behind bars as an innocent man. “It’s better to be out here than in there. But it’s tough,” James said.

As for Figgers, she has added an element to her firm. “Criminal law was an area of law that I avoided,” she said. “However, this cause is too important to avoid when so many wrongfully convicted are reaching out to me for assistance. Knowing you can save a life is something truly rewarding. Nothing compares to that.”

Image: (Saul Martinez / for NBC News)
Image: (Saul Martinez / for NBC News)

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