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Florida man wrongfully convicted of murder is freed by an attorney fresh out of law school

A Miami-area lawyer was able to transform the life of a man who spent 32 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit — and said her own life has also been transformed in the process.

Thomas Raynard James had been in prison 30 years by the time Natlie Figgers, a lawyer only two years out of law school, was approached by friends of his who were raising money for his defense in 2020. He had been proclaiming his innocence throughout his life sentence for murder. Figgers, 32, was empathetic but apprehensive — she was a business and personal injury attorney. James’ case required a criminal lawyer. But Figgers learned no one would take his case. The few attorneys who were interested still required fees that made them inaccessible to James, known as “Jay” to his friends.

She agreed to read up on the case weeks before she gave birth to her son. What she read convinced her that she should, despite her lack of experience, try to help James.

And so, just six weeks after her son was born, Figgers began an 18-month investigation that would consume her.

She banged on doors and rang doorbells. She poured over heaps of paperwork. She cold-called people who testified in the 1990 murder of Francis McKinnon and others related to the case, driving hundreds of miles to gather information and talk to at least 75 people about the case in person. She said she logged more than 2,000 hours researching and interviewing people to build James’ case, pushing aside the car accident and company formation cases she normally takes on.

Figgers shared all the information she uncovered with the Conviction Review Unit, an entity under the Florida Justice Institute, established in Miami in 1991 to identify, prevent and reverse wrongful convictions. The review unit assesses the provided evidence and, if a convincing case is made, recommends a person’s release from prison. Figgers piled on the evidence.

And even though she believed she had supplied enough evidence in 2021 for James to walk free, Figgers continued to dig. “I couldn’t stop until he was out,” she said. “So, I kept giving them more. It became overwhelming evidence of his innocence.”

For starters, nine sets of fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime — none belonged to James. Police and prosecutors relied on the testimony of Dorothy Wilson, the victim’s stepdaughter who was there at the time of the murder and who identified James as the shooter.

The reality was another man named Thomas James lived nearby and had a violent criminal past. He was also friends with Vincent Cephas Williams, the other man convicted of robbing McKinnon that night. The Coral Gables police learned those names through a tip line. When they searched “Thomas James” in their criminal database, they instead found Thomas Raynard James, who “toiled in the drug trade,” James said, and had a gun possession charge. Police tagged James as McKinnon’s murderer, despite there being no physical evidence that Thomas Raynard James had been at the scene.

Decades later, Figgers brought forward witnesses who connected the other Thomas James to Williams, the established robber.

James contends that a case of mistaken identity and less-than-thorough police work ruined his life, adding that detectives did not follow up with witnesses’ claims that would have cleared his name. When he was arrested months after the murder, police used that he could not remember where he was on the night of the crime against him.

Thomas Raynard James at home with his mother Doris Strong and lawyer Natlie Figgers in Miami on June 24, 2022.Saul Martinez for NBC News

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