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Young attorney helps free man wrongfully convicted of murder 32 years ago: 'I owe her my life'

She had enough evidence in 2021 for James to be freed, but didn't stop and kept looking for more evidence to make absolutely sure he walked free.

Young attorney helps free man wrongfully convicted of murder 32 years ago: 'I owe her my life'
Cover image source: Justice4jay

Thomas Raynard James spent 32 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit and it took a 32-year-old lawyer fresh out of law school to free him. Natlie Figgers was a business and personal injury lawyer when friends of Thomas James approached her for help. Figgers had never taken up a crime case before and told them she couldn't do anything about it. After learning that no one else was willing to take his case, and the ones who were willing were not affordable for James, she decided to do it pro bono. James has always maintained he didn't commit the murder of Francis McKinnon in 1990. Figgers started reading up on the case just weeks after giving birth to her son, reported TODAY.


She was convinced James had a case and carried out an 18-month investigation that would consume her. One of her starting points was that the cops had secured nine sets of fingerprints from the scene of the crime and none of them belonged to James. She also realized that another man named Thomas James had a violent criminal past and lived nearby. She did some digging and found that he was also friends with Vincent Cephas Williams, the other man convicted of robbing McKinnon that night. 



It turned out that police and prosecutors had entirely relied on the testimony of Dorothy Wilson, the victim’s stepdaughter, who was present during the murder of McKinnon. Wilson had identified James as the shooter. Figgers went through the whole case and spoke to and visited the people connected with the case all over again. She interviewed at least 75 people in person and logged more than 2,000 hours on research and interviews. The Coral Gables police had got James' name from a tip line. They ran the name through their database and found "Thomas Raynard James" who “toiled in the drug trade.” He also had a gun possession charge. There was no physical evidence of Thomas Raynard James being at the scene.


The biggest breakthrough came when Figgers met Dorothy Wilson, the prosecution’s crucial witness, in May 2021. “She didn’t want to give any statements,” said Figgers. “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," she said.


“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.’” Armed with this vital reveal, Figgers compiled all the evidence she had and passed it to the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), an entity under the Florida Justice Institute, established in Miami in 1991 to identify, prevent and reverse wrongful convictions. The CRU arranged for James to take a polygraph test, to confirm the new evidence presented and he passed. CRU recommended for James be freed. “I couldn’t stop until he was out,” she said. “So, I kept giving them more. It became overwhelming evidence of his innocence,” recalled Figgers.



James thanked Figgers after he was freed. “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,” he said. “I’m not a better person because of what I went through,” he said. “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 case also changed Figgers. "I’m going to treat every case differently moving forward, making sure that I listen closely to my client, more than ever before,” she said. His family has launched a website to raise funds for Jay, as James' loved ones call him, to help rebuild his life — Justice for Jay.  James has also penned a book titled “If These Walls Could Talk, Would You Listen?” about his time in prison.

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