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A new attorney helped clear an innocent man of a murder sentence after 32 years in prison

“Who remembers where they were on a given night five months ago?” Figgers said.

“I never asked anybody to believe what I was saying,” James said. “What I did was say for any and everybody to simply admit that if what I was saying was true, that I had been wrongly convicted. But the only way you can reach that conclusion is to delve into the depths of my situation. Natlie Figgers did. I owe her my life.” 

Figgers, the wife of Freddie Figgers, an inventor and founder of Figgers Communication in Florida, where she had been head of HR, said releasing her emotions helped break the case, especially when in May 2021 she approached Dorothy Wilson, the prosecution’s crucial witness. 

“She didn’t want to give any statements,” Figgers said of Wilson. “She didn’t want to talk to people for years. When I went to interview her, she cracked the door open. I knew at that time she was giving me an opportunity to show her why she should do the right thing. It was such an emotional point for me, I couldn’t help but cry to her. And I told her, ‘If God tells you to give me a call when I leave, please give me a call. I’m going to answer. But I’m doing this because he is an innocent person. And I’m doing this because God put me here.’ And I left.

“Ten minutes later, she called me. I was driving. I pulled over. She asked me: ‘Why did you cry like that? Who is he to you? Are you related to him?’ I told her no. She asked, “Is he paying you?’ I said, ‘No. I’m doing this pro bono.’ She asked me how did I know it wasn’t him? I said, ‘Because I know.’ And she said, ‘I know it wasn’t him, too.’”

 With that admission and the other evidence Figgers compiled, the last step would be for James to take a polygraph test, corroborating the new evidence. He passed. It was the last convincing evidence the CRU needed to recommend that James be freed. 

Finally, on April 27, a judge in Miami ruled that James had been wrongfully imprisoned for 32 years for murder. He was sent home. 

Photos taken with visitors including his mother, right, while Thomas Raynard James was incarcerated.Saul Martinez for NBC News
Diplomas Thomas Raynard James earned while in prison.Saul Martinez for NBC News

James remembered feeling deliriously happy and relieved. He told NBC News, “If a person doesn’t allow the worst thing that can happen to get the best of him … ” His voice trailed off.

“I’m not a better person because of what I went through,” he continued after composing himself. “I’m a different person. I get emotional talking about it; it’s overwhelming. I have emotions running wild, and I think it’s probably going to be that way the rest of my life.”

The same, Figgers said, goes for her. She said she’s also realized that being emotionally connected to her clients’ cases can be effective.  

“This case really shaped me in a different way on how I take on cases,” she said. “And I like the fact that I’m going to treat every case differently moving forward, making sure that I listen closely to my client, more than ever before.”

Herman Atkins, a Black man in California who was exonerated after spending 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, described attorneyes like Figgers and others who take on exoneration cases as “special people.” They have a selflessness and a will to find justice that not every person has. It’s a shame they are needed because of the justice system in America. But if we didn’t have them, none of us who have been unjustly imprisoned would be freed.” 

Figgers is quick to point out she was not alone in helping James secure his freedom. Tristram Korten reported an extensive feature for GQ about James’ case in 2021. There was Reid Rubin of the State Attorney’s office in Miami Dade County, who was receptive to the evidence Figgers submitted, and Christine Zahralban, the chief investigator of the Justice Project’s Conviction Review Unit, who worked diligently on the case, Figgers said.

 “Sometimes in this process, I doubted myself because I hadn’t done it before,” she said. “So, I just went off my gut and prayer. When I finally heard that he was going to be released — finally, way longer than it should have been — all I could do was say, ‘Thank you, God.’ It felt so real. I knew it was meant to happen.” 

James said he lives with his 81-year-old mother and does not leave the house much as he tries to rebuild his life. Under the law, Florida provides a minimum of $50,000 in compensation for every year that someone who is wrongfully convicted is in prison, with a maximum of $2 million. However, a defendant is ineligible to receive compensation if they have been convicted of another violent felony, which James has.

His family launched a website, Justice for Jay, and started an online fundraising campaign since Florida law prohibits him from filing a lawsuit against the state. He also released a book, “If These Walls Could Talk, Would You Listen?” about his time behind bars as an innocent man. “It’s better to be out here than in there. But it’s tough,” James said. 

As for Figgers, she has added an element to her firm. “Criminal law was an area of law that I avoided,” she said. “However, this cause is too important to avoid when so many wrongfully convicted are reaching out to me for assistance. Knowing you can save a life is something truly rewarding. Nothing compares to that.”

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