OCALA — Accused of killing two people in a Citrus County crash, William Thornton IV sat in jail for two months before his first meeting with the public defender assigned to his case.
Approximately three weeks later, the teenager pleaded no contest to vehicular homicide charges in adult court.
Thornton's former public defender said Tuesday he had felt "confident" that his young client would avoid the maximum sentence if he took responsibility early and made his case to a judge rather than a jury.
Attorney Eric Evilsizer had never handled a vehicular homicide case before — or any case involving death — and did not seek guidance from more veteran lawyers about his strategy. He said he had a "gut feeling" that his client's chances were good.
His hunch didn't pan out. Thornton received the maximum 30-year prison sentence.
Armed with a high-powered defense team from Tampa, Thornton, now 21, is back in court this week. He is asking a senior judge in Ocala to set aside his conviction and sentence on the grounds that the attorneys who previously represented him didn't effectively do their jobs.
Exhibit A: Mr. Evilsizer.
The attorney, who now works for a private law firm in Brooksville, spent about six hours on the witness stand Tuesday, explaining in painstaking detail the guidance he gave Thornton and the reasons behind it.
Thornton was 17 and driving home to Sumter County late Dec. 28, 2004, when he skidded past 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 victim wore a seat belt. They were thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene.
Prosecutors offered no plea deals, Evilsizer said. The way the attorney saw it, his client had two choices: Go to trial or make an open plea, which would put his sentence in Circuit Judge Ric Howard's hands. Evilsizer said Thornton didn't want to go to trial and didn't dispute the information in police reports, so they opted for the open plea.
"Based on the evidence that was given to me, I felt that it was going to be a tough case to try," Evilsizer said.
But Stephen Romine, an attorney with the Cohen, Jayson & Foster law firm who is handling Thorton's appeal on a pro bono basis, argued that Evilsizer counseled his young client without ever conducting an independent investigation into the facts.
Though he drove by the accident scene and read the state's investigative materials, Evilsizer acknowledged Tuesday that he never took depositions, interviewed witnesses, photographed or measured the scene, challenged or verified the Florida Highway Patrol's findings or consulted with accident reconstruction experts.
He also never raised issues about the safety of the intersection where the accident occurred, or the fact that Mushlit had alcohol and drugs in his system at the time of the crash, Romine said.
Evilsizer said he thought his client, who did not have a valid driver's license, could make a compelling case based on his clean criminal record, his family support and he willingness to accept responsibility. The attorney said he made no guarantees to his client but told him he thought Howard would likely hand down juvenile sanctions.
"Obviously I was wrong," said Evilsizer, who represented Thornton at the August 2005 hearing where he pleaded no contest but left the public defender's office before the sentencing hearing.
Tuesday's hearing brought together again Thornton's mother and Mushlit's parents. They sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. It also drew a few curious Citrus residents who said Thornton's sentence didn't sit right with them.
One of those residents, Ed Murphy of Homosassa, said he sends money and writes to Thornton in prison and receives "the nicest letters" in return. The retired parole officer said he had not planned to attend the second day of testimony. Then he learned that Howard will be taking the stand today to discuss whether he ever indicated to Evilsizer that he would go easy on Thornton.
Murphy said he would miss his tennis game to see that.