Was Miami man’s 3 decades in prison a case of mistaken identity? Prosecutors agree to review

·4 min read

Miami-Dade prosecutors have reopened an investigation into a man who has spent 30 years in prison for a Coconut Grove murder that a new national magazine article argues was built on a case of mistaken identity.

The piece in GQ contends that Miami police confused Thomas Raynard James for another man with the same name and similar features and that he was convicted in 1991 despite sketchy witness testimony and no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Even before its publication on Wednesday, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office Justice Project, which examines cases involving potential wrongful convictions, had been reviewing the case. Journalist Tristram Korten shared information from his year-long investigation with prosecutors in March.

State attorney spokesman Ed Griffith confirmed that and said investigators also have received information they requested from an attorney recently hired by James, who is now 54.

“We have corresponded with him,” Griffith said. “The review is proceeding.”

Korten, a veteran South Florida journalist and author, said his review of thousands of pages of documents — from depositions to trial transcripts to appeals court cases — left little doubt James was wrongfully imprisoned in the robbery and shooting death of Francis McKinnon in a Coconut Grove apartment.

His piece traces the identity mistake to a Miami-Dade detective who was told by witnesses about a “Thomas James” being involved. Korten’s research found the detective focused on Thomas Raynard James, who six months later police found being held in jail on an unrelated gun charge. That, the article argues, was the wrong guy.

“It was all there in black and white,” Korten said. “For Thomas Raynard James to have done this, it would require a coincidence of monumental proportions, more than even a lightning strike.”

Korten began looking into Thomas Raynard James‘ case in March 2020 after having lunch with a longtime source who told him about the inmate’s plight.

According to Korten, Thomas Raynard James was taken into custody after witnesses claimed a man named Thomas James and his friend Vincent Cephus, who went by the nickname “Dog,” committed the crime. Thomas Raynard James told Korten he was stunned when he first learned he was charged with murder but not scared, because he hadn’t committed the crime.

Still, despite only two of eight witnesses blaming him for the murder — one a brain damaged man who collected cans, the other an older woman who said she never actually saw him — Thomas Raynard James was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

A year into his sentence, he met someone in prison who told him he knew someone with the same name who committed the crime.

As part of his reporting, Korten tracked down the Thomas James he believes police should have talked to, interviewing him in a federal prison near Daytona Beach.

Almost immediately, Thomas James told Korten he knew Thomas Raynard James was innocent and that police were actually looking for him. But, as it proved out, Thomas James also had an alibi himself. He was in prison on Jan. 17, 1990, when the murder took place.

But Thomas James told Korten he was friends with others plotting the robbery and that there was no chance the other James had been involved because “we would never involve a person who was not on the team. Never would have happened.” He also admitted that before going to prison he had scoped out the very same apartment where the murder went down. He added that he was willing to say as much to detectives and state prosecutors.

“Let the other Thomas James know I feel for him. I’m sorry this happened,” he is quoted as saying in the GQ piece.

Korten said the story took one more unexpected turn. He learned that Thomas Raynard James had actually tried to contact him more than 20 years ago, when Korten was a feature writer for Miami New Times.

In the GQ piece, James said he had tried reaching out to almost every South Florida media outlet over the past 30 years, from the Miami Herald to the South Florida Sun Sentinel to all the major local South Florida television stations. Then, the inmate stunned Korten: “You know I wrote you, back when you were at New Times,” he said.

Korten checked. The claim was true, though the letter he wrote arrived shortly after Korten had left the publication.

“But the fact brings me no relief. Instead, the ‘what ifs’ haunt me,” Korten wrote in the article.

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