A relatively new Miami attorney dedicated over 2,000 hours of her time and talent to help free a wrongfully convicted Black man who spent over three decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. She did it all for free and didn’t even specialize in criminal defense.
Natlie Figgers, 32, helped exonerate Thomas Raynard James, 55, who was wrongfully convicted of the 1990 murder of Francis McKinnon in Coral Gables. James, who was just 23 at the time, maintained his innocence throughout his sentence, according to a report by NBC News.
He expressed how much finally getting freed from prison after spending 32 years behind bars felt. “It actually hit me emotionally because I realized that it was actually happening,” James said. “In the end truth always comes out.”
Uncovering that truth proved just as emotional for Figgers as it did for James. She said she was grateful to not only play a role in helping give James back the remainder of his life, but also for the way working on the case has transformed hers.
“I’m just overwhelmed and really grateful for this moment,” said Figgers, who was approached by James’ family in 2020. “This case really shaped me in a different way on how I take on cases. 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.”
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James was misidentified as the killer by an eyewitness after police were tipped off that the murderer was someone named Thomas James. There was no other evidence linking him to the crime. The fact that he has a prior criminal record and couldn’t remember where he was on the night McKinnon was murdered was also used against him by police.
Most attorneys were not interested in James’ case. The few that were required a fee his family couldn’t afford, despite their fundraising efforts. That’s when they approached Figgers, who says she was apprehensive about taking the case at the time since it wasn’t even in her practice area. She changed her mind after reading up on the details.
“Criminal law was an area of law that I avoided,” Figgers 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.”
The Miami-based attorney, who has only been practicing for two years, said she pushed aside her personal injury cases and spent over 2,000 pro bono hours poring over paperwork, tracking down and interviewing witnesses, examining the evidence and lack thereof, etc.
In the end, Figgers provided such an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to James’ innocence, Miami’s Conviction Review Unit vacated his conviction.
“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.”
In a way, Figgers said she also owes James for giving her a new perspective on how she practices law. She’s even added a new element to her firm. Figgers also credits God for helping her help James gain his freedom.
“Sometimes in this process, I doubted myself because I hadn’t done it before,” Figgers 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.”
PHOTO: Attorney Natlie Figgers talks about her case to free Thomas “Jay” Raynard James, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Miami. A judge vacated the life sentence of James who prosecutors said was wrongfully convicted because of mistaken identity. James has been in custody since 1991. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)