“Who remembers where they were on a particular night five months ago?” said Figgers.
“I never asked anyone to believe what I said,” James said. “What I did was tell everyone to just admit that if what I said was true, then I had been wrongly convicted. But the only way to come to that conclusion is to dive into the depths of my situation. So did Natlie Figgers. I owe her my life.”
Figgers, the wife of Freddie Figgers, an inventor and founder of Figgers Communication in Florida, where she had been the head of HR, said letting go of her emotions helped break the case, especially when she approached Dorothy Wilson in May 2021, the crucial witness of the prosecution.
“She wouldn’t make any statements,” Figgers said of Wilson. “She didn’t want to talk to people for years. When I went to interview her, she opened the door. I knew then that she was giving me the chance to show her why she had to do the right thing. It was such an emotional point for me, I couldn’t help but cry to her. And I said to her, ‘If God tells you to call me when I leave, please call me. I’m going to answer. But I’m doing this because he’s 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 stopped. She asked me, ‘Why were you crying 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 I knew it wasn’t him? I said, ‘Because I know.’ And she said, ‘I know it wasn’t him either.’”
With that confession and the other evidence Figgers collected, the last step would be for James to take a polygraph test, which confirms the new evidence. He graduated. It was the last compelling piece of evidence the CRU needed to recommend that James be released.
Finally, on April 27, a judge in Miami ruled that James had been wrongly imprisoned for 32 years for murder. He was sent home.
James remembered feeling insanely happy and relieved. He told NBC News, “If someone doesn’t allow the worst that can happen to get the best of him…” His voice trailed off.
“I haven’t become a better person because of what I’ve been through,” he continued after composing himself. “I’m a different person. I get emotional when I talk about it; it’s overwhelming. I have emotions running wild and I think it probably will be for the rest of my life.”
The same, Figgers said, goes for her. She said she also realized that being emotionally connected to her clients’ affairs can be effective.
“This case has really shaped me in a different way to how I take cases,” she said. “And I like that I’m going to handle every case differently in the future, so that I listen closely to my client, more than ever before.”
Herman Atkins, a black man in California who was acquitted after serving 12 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, described lawyers like Figgers and others who handle acquittal cases as “special people.” They have a selflessness and a will to find justice that not everyone has. It’s a shame they are necessary because of the justice system in America. But if we didn’t have them, none of us who have been wrongly imprisoned would be released.”
Figgers is quick to point out that she wasn’t the only one who helped James secure his freedom. Tristram Korten reported an extended function for GQ on James’s case in 2021. There were Reid Rubin of the Miami Dade County District Attorney’s Office, who was admissible to the evidence presented by Figgers, and Christine Zahralban, the principal investigator of the Conviction Review Unit of the Justice Project, who worked diligently on the case, Figgers said.
“Sometimes during this process I doubted myself because I hadn’t done it before,” she said. “So I just popped out and prayed. When I finally heard he was going to be released — finally, much longer than it should have been — all I could say was, ‘Thank you, God.’ It felt so real. I knew it had to happen.”
James said he lives with his 81-year-old mother and doesn’t leave the house very often as he tries to rebuild his life. Under the law, Florida offers a minimum of $50,000 in damages for each year a wrongfully convicted person is in prison, up to a maximum of $2 million. However, a defendant is not eligible for damages if he is convicted of another violent crime, which James did.
His family launched a website, Justice for Jay, and launched an online fundraising campaign because Florida law prohibits him from suing the state. He also brought 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 hard,” James said.
As for Figgers, she has added an element to her business. “Criminal law was an area of law that I avoided,” she said. “However, this case is too important to avoid when so many wrongly convicted people are asking me for help. Knowing you can save a life is really worth it. Nothing compares to that.”