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Florida Man Freed From Prison After Serving 32 Years On Wrongful Murder Conviction

“We have determined that Thomas Raynard James is actually innocent,” Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban said. James had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a 1990 home invasion murder based on a mistaken witness identification.

By Dorian Geiger
Thomas "Jay" Raynard James standing with his attorney

A wrongly convicted Florida man, who spent more than three decades behind bars in a 1990 murder case involving mistaken identity, was released this week, officials said.

Thomas Raynard James, 55, was released on Wednesday, according to online state prison records obtained by Oxygen.com

James maintained his innocence for decades despite being convicted in the 1990 home invasion murder of murder of Francis McKinnon.

The Florida man had been convicted in McKinnon’s murder largely due to a case of mistaken identity, officials noted; an eyewitness, investigators later learned, had wrongly connected him to the killing. James had also been found guilty on additional charges, including armed robbery and aggravated assault with a firearm and armed burglary of an occupied dwelling with a firearm.

He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison and began serving his sentence on March 6, 1991, records show. He was 23 at the time.

“We have determined that Thomas Raynard James is actually innocent,” Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban said in court on Wednesday, according to the Miami Herald.

Judge Miguel M de la O vacated James’ sentence this week. Several of his family members, including his mother, were present, CNN reported.

“This has been a long time coming,” James told local media following the judge’s ruling vacating his sentence, per CNN.

“Now, let me go enjoy life,” he added before departing the courthouse.

James’ exoneration comes after prosecutors had previously combed through 20,000 pages of records, conducted several new witness interviews and re-tested DNA samples.

"We as prosecutors must do all we can to ensure that mistakes do not happen, and when they do happen, we have to correct those mistakes,” Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the State Attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida in Miami-Dade County also said on Twitter. “None of us here in our office fear the truth because the truth shall set you free... which is what we are doing now.”

The 55-year-old, overjoyed at his first taste of freedom in more than three decades, said in interviews with local reporters following his release that he was focused on renewing relationships with family and friends.

“I woke up to my mother’s voice, and she was actually talking to me, she wasn’t telling me get up or get out or nothing like that,” James told Miami television station WPLG.  

The 55-year-old also divulged that he was savoring the simple moments while adjusting to his newfound freedom. 

“I did go get me a Popeyes sandwich, so we good on that,” James added.

James’ family have set up a GoFundMe page on Thursday to financially assist his transition back into society. The fundraiser has currently tallied just over $1,000 as of Friday afternoon.

James’ release, however, has re-opened fresh wounds for McKinnon’s family, who also attended Wednesday’s court hearing. 

“My concern is not about retrying this case, it’s about justice for my father's case,” Samuel McKinnon, McKinnon’s son said, the Associated Press reported. “Now you’re telling me we lost 30 years of potential investigation with solving this.”

For years, the slain man’s two sons had been convinced James was behind their father’s killing.

“Mr. James, I don’t want to see you in jail if you’re innocent,” Charles McKinnon, Francis McKinnon’s other son, also told the court on Wednesday, according to CNN. 

Francis McKinnon was a decorated war veteran, his family said. 

“He was my hero,” Samuel McKinnon added. “My role model. I can remember the night of the call. I traveled all the way to Baptist to find out my father’s been murdered. That affects anyone,” said Samuel McKinnon.

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