How a Miami-Area Lawyer Fresh Out of Law School Helped Clear an Innocent Man of Murder After He Spent 32 Years in Prison

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. (Saul Martinez for NBC News)

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.

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SOURCE: NBC News, Curtis Bunn