Florida man wrongfully convicted for 3 decades on his release: ‘I never stopped believing’

Author: Sophie Reardon / CBS
Thomas Raynard James. Credit: CBS

Thomas Raynard James is a free man after spending more than 30 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. He walked out of a Florida prison on Wednesday and sat down with CBS Miami’s Kendis Gibson the following day to talk about life as a prisoner, and what’s changed since he was incarcerated.

“I never stopped believing it would happen,” he told Gibson, speaking of his release.

James learned he would be freed on Tuesday night, and he was out of prison less than 24 hours later. After hearing the news, James said he was at peace and able to sleep through the night that last night in prison. But first, he spent a lot of time talking to fellow inmates and guards, telling them he was leaving.

That night, he said he thought to himself: “The war, the fight, the battle, it’s pretty much over.”

When he walked out Wednesday morning, the first person he hugged was his mom.

“That was a warm feeling,” James said. “That was a real hug.”

Afterward, he had some comfort food and slept in a “real bed.” James described the joy he felt waking up and being able to stretch out his limbs without the fear of falling off a bunk.

He said over the years spent behind bars he never gave up hope he would one day be freed.

James was convicted in 1991 of the 1990 death of Francis McKinnon. As he described it to Gibson, James, then 23 years old, was arrested on an unrelated charge. He failed to appear in court for a hearing and was subsequently arrested for McKinnon’s death, months after the murder.

His trial lasted for two and a half days, he said, and despite the fact that nine fingerprints that did not match his were found at the scene, he was convicted. An eyewitness had told jurors she watched him gun down her stepfather during a robbery in his Coconut Grove apartment.

While behind bars, James, who is now 55, said he told his story to everyone who would listen: “If you had ears, I told it to you.”

“I wasn’t gonna stop until I was either free or dead,” he later added.

Although he believes that most people involved in his case — the jury, the prosecutors, the police — did not do their due diligence, James said he has forgiven all of them. And while he doesn’t feel he was robbed of a life, he knows he lost a lot.

Prior to entering jail, James wanted to be a businessman. He had opened a car wash and wanted to begin investing. He hoped to marry and have a family, too.

Now, James will meet with his attorney to decide whether they can sue for the wrongful conviction. If he succeeds with a lawsuit, he says he’d use the money to get to some of his dreams and to aid his transition back into society.

He did try to keep up with what was going on in the world while behind bars so that he wouldn’t have too much culture shock when he got out. James said he had access to tablets and email while in prison. He tried to read as much as he could about technological advances and said he asked newer inmates questions about the world beyond the prison walls.

When he was released, though, he said he was surprised by the tall buildings in downtown Miami, and the new cars on the road. Soon, he will get his first smartphone.

James also wants to visit his childhood neighborhood, try a Popeyes chicken sandwich, which he’s heard a lot about, and ride the new trains.

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