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The Tragic Case of the Wrong Thomas James

Tommy James has been in jail almost as long as Thomas Raynard James. He was convicted as a habitual offender in 1996, at the age of 23, and given a life sentence, another young man for whom we’d collectively agreed there could be no redemption. We put him behind bars and lost the key. Maybe that’s why he was talking with me now. He sympathized with the man who shared his name, both buried by society and forgotten.

He wasted no time getting to the point.

“I know the other Thomas James was arrested by accident, by mistake” he told me. “The officers were looking for me.”

What the cops didn’t know at the time was that he couldn’t have been the killer. He had been arrested the day before on unrelated charges and, according to a jail booking card I obtained, was locked up when the murder took place. This Thomas James had a pretty good alibi. Still, he thought he could help clear some things up, so he told me his story.

Tommy James grew up poor in a tough part of Miami. To complicate things, he said, he was small for his age. “Coming up in school, I was a runt—I had runt complex,” he said. To compensate, he acted out. He ran through traffic, jumped over cars, climbed the tallest tree. He’d fight bigger kids “just to prove I was the toughest.” Soon he was carrying knives, then guns. “Like they say, I didn’t play,” he offered, echoing what I had heard from Cheryl Holcomb. “I had a reputation for being fearless.”

His childhood outlook was formed by a survival imperative. “It was a bad environment to grow up in. There was no one to nurture you other than other criminals,” he said.

And that’s how he fell in with Vincent Cephus Williams. “Dog was like the leader of a crew,” Tommy said. “We hit drug dealers, numbers houses.” They robbed outlaws, victims who wouldn’t call the cops. “The house targeted was a numbers house,” he said about the McKinnons’ apartment. “Months earlier it was scoped out. I had been there before. It was on the list. It was discussed.”

Tommy said he had been familiar with the apartment since he was a boy. “I been there. My mama’s been there. We were related in some way. We been in that house!” he said. Just as Ethra McKinnon had told prosecutors.

Tommy’s recollection that he and Dog were casing the apartment, and talking about robbing it, means that others could have heard or seen what they were up to. And that could be the reason witnesses thought he was involved.

Of course, he wasn’t. “I was in jail,” he told me. “I woke up in the morning—I had been there maybe two days—and this guy from the neighborhood comes in. He assumes I’m there for the murder.”

Tommy said he was confused. Who got killed? he asked. According to Tommy, the man replied, “You know, the man in the Grove who ran the numbers house.”

Tommy James got out of prison in 1993. He recalled meeting up with Dog. “ ‘You know, they think I did that thing with you in the Grove,’ ” Tommy remembered telling him, as they sat in Dog’s car. “He said, ‘Yeah, keep your mouth shut. We outta here.’ He said no one was after me for it.” By then, Thomas Raynard James had been charged and convicted.

Talk in the neighborhood was a confused mess. Thomas Raynard James had been sent to prison, but on the streets Tommy James, a free man, was rumored to be the murderer. He never thought to set the record straight. According to Tommy, he kept his mouth shut as Dog instructed.

Tommy told me he doesn’t know who was with Dog during the robbery, except to say it wasn’t Thomas Raynard James. “We would never involve a person who was not on the team,” he said. “Never would have happened.”

He also told me he didn’t know where Dog was these days. Amazingly, Vincent Cephus Williams was never tracked down by police—even though he’d been positively identified by numerous witnesses who saw him at the scene and again in the photo lineup. That’s more evidence than the police used to arrest Thomas Raynard James. A bulletin to detain him was issued to police departments. Yet Detective Conley couldn’t find Williams? It defies belief. Especially because he was, for many years, right under their noses. In 1991, he was convicted in a Miami courtroom of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 11 years. He spent a decade in the custody of the state—all the while wanted by police in connection to a murder. How much could go wrong in one investigation?


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