Judge overturns murder conviction of man unjustly imprisoned for 32 years 2022-04-27 20:00:10


“We have determined that Thomas Renard James is indeed innocent,” Assistant State Prosecutor Christine Zahrleban told the court on Wednesday. Subsequently, Judge Miguel Dela annulled James’ life sentence in the presence of his mother and family.

“It’s been a long time,” James told reporters after his acquittal. He said he plans to start trying to find a job and enjoy a first meal with his family. As he prepared to leave the courtroom, James said, “Now, let me enjoy life.”

James, now 55, was arrested in 1990 and convicted in 1991 of the first-degree murder of Francis McKinnon, according to court documents. The case was based largely on the positive identification of James from an eyewitness. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for a minimum term of 25 years with an additional sentence for armed robbery and aggravated assault with a firearm as well as armed robbery of an occupied home with a firearm.

One of the victims’ sons, Charles McKinnon, spoke in court Wednesday, saying: “Mr James, I don’t want to see you in prison if you’re innocent.” But he added that the family was not fully convinced and could not support the state’s position.

James’ case was picked up by the SAO Justice Project last year after it was twice rejected by the Florida Innocence Project due to a lack of DNA evidence, according to state attorney Catherine Fernandez-Randel.

James filed more than 10 post-conviction motions and appeals and was denied each time, in accordance with a motion to overturn his convictions and sentences brought by Randle.

In June 2021, the SAO Justice Project reviewed more than 20,000 pages of records and conducted their own interviews with witnesses under oath, some of whom were prison inmates. They examined DNA, firearms, and crime scene evidence, and found that there was no physical evidence linking anyone to the crime.

Dorothy Walton, the victim’s daughter-in-law, was the only eyewitness who identified James positively. According to the suggestion, she was quoted in an article in the Miami Herald from 1991 as saying: “I will never forget his face. And I will never forget his eyes.”

In 2019, Walton, 79, told the Florida Innocence Project investigators that she believed she had made a mistake in identifying James.

Randall said the investigation concluded “an unfortunate case of misidentification.” “Eye witness testimony can be very weak, especially on those days.”

James, in his sworn statement to the SAO Justice Project in January of 2022, said he never shot anyone and never went to the apartment complex where the crime occurred.

James also agreed to conduct a polygraph examination, passing questions asking if he was physically present in the apartment when McKinnon was shot, whether he had shot McKinnon, and whether he was involved in the robbery/murder in any way .

Wednesday was “a day of joy for the James family and a day of grief for the McKinnon family,” Randell said. “They still lost their loved ones, their father, and they thought the person who killed him was being held accountable, and they thought justice had been closed.”

Charles McKinnon told reporters after the court hearing that he wanted to make sure his father would continue to get justice.

“We did not get enough information as family members,” he said. “I can’t say I’m in total disagreement, but I don’t think I know enough to say I support that either.”

Randell said she is proud of the Justice Project team for their extensive work on James’ case.

“We have a sword and a shield,” she said. “We have a sword to go after those who terrorize, abuse, rape and kill others. But we have a shield and a shield to protect the victims, to protect the community but also to protect the innocent. That’s what we have to do today. It feels great.”

CNN contacted James’ legal representation, but did not immediately receive a response.

CNN’s Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.