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After four years, young man gets a shot at justice

In an Ocala courtroom next week, expect a remarkable scene to unfold in the name of justice, or maybe justice denied.

Expect to see a judge on the witness stand answering questions about whether he did or didn't indicate he would go easy on a teenager about to enter a plea.

Expect to see a lawyer called to testify about the defense he gave that teenager — or didn't give him, depending on your perspective.

And expect William Thornton IV, a young man currently serving an outrageous 30-year prison sentence for a fatal car crash in Citrus County in 2004, to get at least a shot at a fair shake — something the court system has denied him so far.

Thornton, then 17, was driving at night when he skidded through a stop sign at a dark intersection and into the path of a Chevy Blazer. The collision flipped the SUV, ejecting the driver and passenger, Brandon Mushlit and Sara Jo Williams, killing them both. It was a terrible tragedy.

But what punishment fit the crime?

Thornton had no criminal record, though he was driving without a license that night.

He wasn't drinking.

He wasn't on drugs.

On the advice of his public defender, Thornton pleaded no contest to vehicular homicide charges, believing he would get juvenile sanctions or probation.

But Circuit Judge Ric Howard, known for his tough punishments, instead slapped Thornton with the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. The judge at one point mentioned Thornton's father, whom he had sentenced to 30 years in a theft case.

To some people, this didn't sit right.

But Howard refused to take himself off the case afterward, creating the bad scenario of a judge judging his own actions. Finally, he removed himself last fall when it became clear he would be called as a witness in Thornton's bid to withdraw his plea.

Why the judge?

Thornton's then-public defender, a man named Eric Evilsizer, says the judge indicated in an off-the-record talk that Thornton would likely get juvenile sanctions or probation.

What will the judge say about that? We'll see, when the hearing unfolds before a Marion County senior judge beginning Tuesday.

Thornton's defense is now in the hands of powerhouse lawyer Steve Romine of the well-known Barry Cohen law firm in Tampa. He's working for free. Ask him why and he talks about a kid in jail who was ill-advised and did not make a knowing or voluntary plea, a kid with a viable defense nobody bothered to thoroughly investigate.

Such as?

Locals near the crash site worried about that intersection because a hill's crest kept drivers from seeing the stop sign until it was too late. Even the families of the victims sued the county, contending the roads weren't properly marked. A yellow "Stop Ahead" sign went up not long after the crash.

Thornton was not impaired, though the other driver had alcohol in his system. Neither victim wore a seat belt.

Whether a jury will ever hear any of this, and what they might make of it if they did, are questions for another day.

Next week we can also expect to hear from Thornton, who recently turned 21 in prison. Maybe this time there will be, if not justice, at least a fair day in court.

After four years, young man gets a shot at justice 12/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 2:30pm]
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