Mistaken Identity Leads to Exoneration After 32 Years in Prison

May 4, 2022 Criminal Defense

After spending over 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Thomas “Jay” Raynard James has had his life sentence vacated. James was wrongfully convicted of murder, mainly due to mistaken identity. How could this possibly happen?

Back in 1990, James had been accused and then convicted of the murder of Francis McKinnon. McKinnon’s stepdaughter played a large part in the conviction, as she testified as the eyewitness that she watched James gun down McKinnon during a robbery.

The judge who exonerated James wrote a 90-page motion, which included the fact that James had the same name as a suspect that was named by a witness and anonymous tipster. This led to the defendant’s photo being shown in a lineup, which then resulted in the mistaken identity.

During the case’s trial, the stepdaughter Dorothy Walton pointed out James and said she was sure that he had been the one to pull the trigger and kill McKinnon. “I’m positive of it. I will never forget his face,” Walton told jurors. James was convicted of the murder, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Just last fall Walton came forward to admit that she had some worries about her testimony. She originally did not wish to meet with prosecutors, but finally did last month to admit that she made a mistake in identifying James as the gunman.

During the last year, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle worked with the Justice Project to work over 20,000 pages of documents, reinterview witnesses, resubmit fingerprints, and test DNA from the crime scene. James’ fingerprints did not match that of the crime scene.

The Innocence Project of Florida played a large role in the case, going through several appeals, post-conviction reviews, and even reviews from private investigators. Rundle stated, “None were successful in finding Mr. Thomas Raynard James innocent until we got involved.”

Rundle is the one who filed the 90-page motion to finally vacate James’ life sentence after a long road of trying to get him released from prison. As she detailed the motion, James stood behind his mother and stated, “I feel good. Real good.”

Rundle addressed James as he was quietly crying and said, “Hopefully the court will grant you the freedom you’ve been looking for for so many years.”

Natalie Figgers is the attorney who represented James, and gave the comment, “It took a village to make this happen. It wasn’t a smooth ride. I want to extend my gratitude to everyone that played a part in bringing this result.”

Exonerations in Florida

Florida has had more exonerations than any other state in the country—specifically for death row inmates. There has been more pressure to go back and review cases with the advances in DNA evidence.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are at least 154 prisoners that are eligible for resentencing. There have been over 20 inmates who have been resentenced from the death penalty to life in prison. 

James’ case was not a death penalty sentence, but just highlights another instance in which reinvestigating evidence and testimonies can help to release innocent people from prison.

Florida Innocence Project

Florida’s Innocence Project has been working toward getting people getting released from wrongful convictions. According to their policies, anyone who had been found guilty of a felony, or entered a guilty plea to a felony before July 1, 2006, is eligible for a post-conviction DNA testing.

While the Florida Innocence Project is a great initiative to get innocent people released from prison, they said they collaborate with other entities committed to justice to make it happen. This includes experienced defense attorneys in Florida. Finding a skilled defense attorney can put you on the right path to proving your innocence.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Being accused of a crime is extremely stressful and can be difficult to navigate on your own. Luckily you don’t have to. Prioritizing finding an experienced attorney in your area can make a huge difference in your case. James had to wait over 30 years to finally receive the freedom he deserved. Don’t let the same mistake happen to you. If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, reach out to Pumphrey Law Firm today. Don Pumphrey and his legal team have experience representing clients all over the state of Florida and will work tirelessly to grant you your freedom. Call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today for a free consultation.

Written by Karissa Key

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