By the time the van arrived to transport Thomas Raynard James to the courthouse, he had been in jail for three weeks. Long enough for him to consider how much his life, at 23, had drifted.
He had an idea of what was going to happen at the hearing. The cops had found marijuana and an illegal gun in his car – he knew he was facing something more serious than the small drug possession charges he had dealt with before.
But he was hopeful. He had already come to regard this ordeal as a red flag. It was August 1990, and Thomas James had decided to pull himself together.
James was a con artist, a pot dealer in the projects around Brownsville, north of Miami in central Dade County. He managed a crew and a few turns. But in his mind, it was only temporary, a means to an end. He was saving; he had bigger plans. His goal was to own his own business.
He had saved around $ 36,000 so far, which he said wasn’t enough to get started. But recently he had found a company that was working to help fund small business projects like his. He allowed himself to imagine great things.
The van slowed to a stop at the courthouse and James dragged himself outside, where his hands were handcuffed and tied to a belt; his legs were chained and he was chained to a dozen other inmates. The group were crabbed into a paneled courtroom and ordered to sit in the jury gallery.
Shortly after, a judge called out their names one by one.
“Thomas James,” the judge read aloud. James stood up. But before the judge could detail the charges, the clerk sitting under the bench grabbed a large accordion-like file and pulled out a document.
“Your honor,” he reminded the clerk, “there is a warrant against him for first degree murder”.
James raised his eyebrows. It was a mistake ; he hadn’t killed anyone. He figured his file had merged with that of one of the other guys on the role.
The warrant spelled out the details: Seven months earlier, near Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, a robbery had gone wrong and a man had been killed. Hearing all this, James was stunned but not yet scared.
They can’t talk about me, he thought.
He lived 15 miles from Coconut Grove and had only been there once or twice in his life, and that was years ago. None of this made sense to him.
And yet, the files of the defendants had not been mixed up. the name of Jacques really was on the warrant, which said witnesses identified him at the scene of the crime.
A public defender James had never met pleaded not guilty, and officers took James downstairs, where they again collected his fingerprints, took a photo ID and convicted him of murder.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a shortened version of the longer story. The full version can be read here.[………..]
The murder that James was charged with committing six months earlier, on January 17, 1990. That evening, as dusk set over a three-story apartment building at 135 South Dixie Highway, two men approached. from Unit 110, the home of Francis and Ethra McKinnon, an elderly couple living with a disability. One of the men wore a mask; the other didn’t bother.
With the McKinnons that night were Ethra’s daughter, Dorothy Walton, who was a nurse, and her husband, Johnny. … Suddenly the unlocked apartment door burst open and a man with a silver handgun rushed inside, his face clearly visible. Behind him, a man with what could have been a stocking covering his face followed him.
They both shouted to everyone in order to hit the ground: “Get off! Good God! To come down!”
Dorothy, Johnny and Ethra did as they were told. Dorothy begged, “Please don’t hurt my mom!”
The shooter grabbed the young woman’s handbag from the kitchen table and searched it. Francis, hearing the commotion, walked out of the room and into the hallway with a .38 caliber snub nose revolver in one hand. He paused to observe the chaos of the living room.
This gave the unmasked intruder just enough time to raise his silver gun and shoot. A ball. It entered Francis’ right cheek, traveled down his neck, and touched the carotid artery. Francois fell where he was standing.[……]
James was going later remember that in the weeks that followed, while preparing for his trial, he met his lawyer, [Owen Chin], only three times, for less than an hour each time. He knew Chin wanted to present an alibi, but honestly James couldn’t provide one.
“Where were you on January 17th?” Chin asked at one point.
“January? It’s August! I don’t know where I was! James fumed.
Chin scanned the evidence, telling James that prosecutors had a witness who placed him at the scene and even knew his mother. James was puzzled. “My mother? No one in Coconut Grove knows my mother,” he said.
It was as if he was in a parallel universe, a universe where people were talking about another Thomas James.[….]
When Thomas James trial began in January 1991, it was still certain that the confusion would be settled. Perhaps naively, he figured that whoever would testify would look at him and realize, well, that he was not at the scene that night.
The prosecutor called 11 witnesses; hardly any of them were able to recognize James from the crime scene. Most were police officers, crime scene investigators; one was the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Francis McKinnon.
The trial lasted two and a half days, during which the jury considered four counts: first degree murder, armed robbery, armed robbery and aggravated assault. On the third day, upon their return from deliberating, Judge Fredericka G. Smith asked, “Have you rendered a verdict? “
With his mother, Doris, watching from the spectator bench, James saw the judge take a sheet of paper from the president of the jury.
“We, the jury, find the following,” Justice Smith read aloud. “The accused is guilty of first degree murder. “
James went numb. Word guilty followed each of the other charges. He felt detached from reality.
A week later, he was sentenced to life. As an icy shock spread over him, James realized that he had seriously misinterpreted the threat to his existence. He would be eligible for parole in 25 years, but that has not been recorded. I’m going to die in prison, he thought.
In fact, prosecutors considered the possibility of the death penalty for James. However, one of them, RoseMarie Antonacci-Pollock, who helped prepare the case, wrote in a note that she recommended not to seek the death penalty because, as she wrote, “ I am extremely concerned about the very weak nature of the state’s evidence in this case. “[…….]
When Thomas Raynard James was sent to state prison he concluded that the only person he could count on for help was himself. He decided that if the truth about what happened that night in Coconut Grove was ever to emerge, he should find out.
One day, about a year after the start of his sentence, James was walking through the courtyard of Hendry Correctional Institution in Immokalee when another inmate approached him. “Are you involved in this murder in the grove?” The man asked.
“Yes, but I didn’t.”
The inmate looked James straight in the eye. “I know,” he said. “You and the guy who made it have the same name.”[………]
When I finally met Thomas James at the South Bay Correctional Facility, a private prison on the edge of the Everglades in Palm Beach County, he was no longer the young man who dreamed of owning buildings. He was now middle aged.
He had big eyes and a round, friendly face. Years of careful investigation have made him an effective thinker and communicator. He answered, without hesitation, all my questions about his childhood, his adventure in drug trafficking and his run-ins with the law.
He seemed grateful to be heard. “I’ve been trying for a very long time,” he says.
But James didn’t have all the answers to her case. There were limits to what he could discover. So I have spent much of the past year filing public registration applications and researching documents. I also attempted to locate the people who were in the apartment complex that night 30 years ago.[…….]
I was able to interview one of the people in the compound when McKinnon was killed.
[Cheryl Holcomb, whose mother lived in a neighboring apartment identified the man witnesses said had been seen running from the murder scene as “Thomas James.” She also acknowledged seeing a picture of Thomas Raynard James on the Florida Department of Corrections website. ]’
“See now, the guy they had over there, I don’t know him,” she said. “He’s not the Thomas James I know.”
The other Thomas James– who doesn’t have a middle name and is called Tommy – is housed these days at Tomoka Correctional Facility, among the brushwood pines of central Florida, just west of downtown Daytona Beach.
When I met him there, he was wearing a faded blue prison uniform. He was tall, with broad shoulders, and when he sipped a cup of water his golden teeth glistened in the light. I could see why he had been popular with the ladies.
Tommy James has been in prison for almost as long as Thomas Raynard James. He was convicted of a repeat offender in 1996 at the age of 23 and sentenced to life imprisonment, another young man for whom we collectively agreed there could be no redemption.
We put him behind bars and lost the key. Maybe that’s why he was talking to me now. He sympathized with the man who shared his name, both buried by society and forgotten.
He wasted no time getting to the point.
“I know the other Thomas James was arrested by accident, by mistake,” he told me. “The officers were looking for me.
The great tragedy of this case is not only that Thomas Raynard James was wrongly convicted.
Unfortunately, this happens too often.
The peculiarity of this tragedy is that he found a way to uncover an improbable truth and that was not enough to get anyone’s attention. The criminal justice system, that vast collection of state agencies and bureaucracies, is not designed to look back.
It is a juggernaut that constantly rolls forward.
ED NOTE: At the time of this writing, Thomas Raynard James remains behind bars.
Tristram Korten, author of “Into the Storm: Two Ships, a Deadly Hurricane, and an Epic Battle for Survival,” is a member of the John Jay Justice 2020 reporting program. The full article this excerpt is based on appeared in issue d ‘August 2021 from GQ under the title “The Tragic Case of The Wrong Thomas James” and can be viewed here.