OCALA — A judge on Wednesday threw out the vehicular homicide conviction and 30-year prison sentence for a young man who said his public defenders promised he wouldn't go to prison if he pleaded no contest to killing two people in a 2004 Citrus County car crash.
Shortly after sundown, 21-year-old William Thornton left jail, free for now but still facing serious charges.
Thornton won his reprieve after the prosecutor and the judge who put him away three years ago conceded that he was the victim of inadequate lawyering.
Under questioning from the high-powered attorney who took up Thornton's appeal on a pro bono basis, Circuit Judge Ric Howard testified that he would not have allowed Thornton to enter his plea had he known how little work two public defenders had done on the case.
Based on testimony from the judge and Thornton's former attorneys, who acknowledged their shortcomings, Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman said he could no longer argue that the young man had been properly counseled. The prosecutor stopped a two-day hearing short, and asked Senior Circuit Judge William Swigert to grant Thornton's motion to set aside his sentence and conviction.
"It's clear that the defendant did not receive effective representation," Buxman said.
Thornton was 17 and driving home to Sumter County late Dec. 28, 2004, when he skidded through a stop sign on a poorly lit road. He collided with a sport utility vehicle carrying Brandon Mushlit, 25, and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams, 23. Neither wore a seat belt, and both died at the scene.
Thornton had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the wreck, and no prior criminal record, although he didn't have a valid driver's license.
Authorities arrested him the following May. About three weeks after his first meeting with a public defender, he pleaded no contest, an unusually quick resolution for a case of such magnitude.
Prosecutors offered no plea deal. But Thornton said his attorney, Eric Evilsizer, who had never before handled a vehicular homicide case, assured him that the judge would give him probation or juvenile sanctions.
From the witness stand Wednesday, Howard said he made no such guarantees.
Evilsizer admitted Tuesday that he never took depositions, interviewed witnesses, photographed or measured the crash scene, challenged or verified the Florida Highway Patrol's findings or consulted with accident reconstruction experts.
Howard said if he had known of those deficiencies before the plea, "I would have immediately stopped it."
The 30-year sentence imposed by the judge was previously upheld by an appellate court. Howard recused himself from the case earlier this year after being listed as a witness in Thornton's appeal.
Evilsizer left the Citrus County Public Defender's Office before Thornton's sentencing hearing. Dale Merrill, who had just moved to Florida and also had never handled a vehicular homicide case, took over the case.
She testified Wednesday that the investigative documents provided to her office by prosecutors were in "pristine condition," and she saw no indication that Evilsizer had reviewed them. Merrill said her predecessor told her not to spend time preparing for Thornton's sentencing, assuring her that the judge was going to go easy on their client.
Stephen Romine, Thornton's current attorney, asked why Merrill didn't speak up as soon as things went sour.
"I don't know why I didn't do that," she said.
Though he agreed that Thornton's sentence should be vacated, Buxman said he was not suggesting that the charges filed against him were unwarranted. The state will still prosecute the case.
Romine, who works for the Cohen, Jayson & Foster law firm in Tampa, said he will continue to represent Thornton, but gave no indication Wednesday about what their defense strategy will be.
He commended the prosecution for doing the right thing, but said Thornton's public defenders never should have let the case get so out of hand.
"You just can't rush things," he said. "There was a lot of guessing in this case. Lawyers aren't supposed to guess."
Linda Mushlit, who sued the county after her son's death for failing to properly mark the roads near the crash scene, left the courtroom quickly Wednesday, declining to comment on the judge's ruling.
Romine persuaded Swigert to release Thornton on his own recognizance. He must wear a monitoring device and is not allowed to drive.
Thornton's mother and grandmother waited Wednesday for 3½ hours in the Marion County Jail parking lot to hug the boy who had become a man during his three years in prison.
He emerged just after 6:30 p.m. wearing khaki pants and a white polo shirt issued by the jail.
After a long embrace with the women who would bring him home to Sumter County and feed him the shrimp he couldn't wait to eat, he turned and spoke to news reporters in a voice that was barely audible.
"It's an answer to prayers," he said of the day's events.
"This is a miracle," said his grandmother, Ada Mae Massey.
"Yes it is," said his mother, Lola Thornton. "Thank you, Jesus."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.