James would not be going back to prison to collect any of his belongings. Everything important to him he took to court that morning: pictures, notes on a book he wants to write, notes on businesses he wants to start, some legal documents. Three decades stuffed in a blue mesh bag. As he changed out of his jail clothes for the last time at the State Attorney’s Office across the street from the courthouse, he was briefly and literally emerging naked into a new world.
His family had brought new threads for him to wear. A gray sweatshirt, a t-shirt with “Versace” on it, dark slacks, new leather tennis shoes. It must have felt good. Back in the day, when James was awaiting trial in a Miami jail, families were allowed to drop off street clothes for inmates to wear. Sammy Wilson, who served time with James, remembers a young man who kept up appearances. James “always dressed fresh,” Wilson told me. “His pants, his shirt, his shoes always matched. He liked that Yankees blue. He was GQ.”
Wilson, a gravel-voiced cynic, played an integral part in helping James, speaking to him regularly throughout his incarceration. He’s the one who told me about the case and put me in touch with James, who had been reaching out to media for years with no luck. Wilson was in the courtroom Wednesday for the hearing. “Damndest thing,” he recalled. “When they announce he free, tears came out of my eyes. I didn’t even cry when I went to prison. Man, I must be getting soft.”
James didn’t cry. After suffering for so long, he is careful not to let his emotions overwhelm him. I know because I’ve been talking to him for two years now as we shepherded his story into the light, then waited to see if anything would happen. I was not in Miami for the hearing, but I made him tell me in detail his movements that day. Some of that was cover. Given the magnitude of his injustice, the emotionally safe spot for both of us has always been digging for facts. Now was no different, except instead of witnesses, it was about the weather.
James stepped from the State Attorney’s Office into a bright, sunny Miami afternoon, with a cooling breeze. What were those first moments of freedom like? “It was myriad emotions all at one time,” he said. Was there an overriding one?
“Joy, it gotta be joy. A sigh of relief,” he said. “Everything hasn’t sunk in yet, it’s been a long time.”
It has. A very long time.
The road to James’ unjust incarceration is complicated … and not. It boils down to a 1990 apartment robbery that left 57-year-old Francis McKinnon dead from a gunshot wound to the head. From there, a Metro-Dade Police detective named Kevin Conley heard from witnesses and the tip line that “Thomas James” was involved. So he went to the records department at headquarters and pulled up a mug shot of a Thomas James. (He later said he didn’t remember if there were any other mug shots with the same name.) One witness, who had never met James before, identified him as the shooter. There was no other evidence against him, no fingerprints, footprints, DNA, or ballistics. He met his public defender about three times before trial.