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Judge withdraws from appeal of his tough sentence

Twice accused of bias after sentencing a teenager to 30 years in prison for a fatal car crash, Circuit Judge Ric Howard refused to remove himself from the case.

But the Citrus County judge acquiesced Friday after learning he will now be called as a defense witness as William Thornton IV seeks to get his sentence overturned.

Thornton was 17 and driving home to Sumter County in December 2004 when he skidded through a stop sign on a poorly lit road. He collided with a sport utility vehicle, killing two people.

Howard drew criticism for giving Thornton the maximum sentence. The judge was also accused of racial prejudice and making allusions to the 30-year prison term he had given Thornton's father in a theft case, allegations he denounced.

His decision to leave the younger Thornton's case will allow Howard to testify, as Thornton seeks to convince a new judge he relied on bad legal advice when he pleaded guilty to adult vehicular homicide charges.

Tampa attorney Steve Romine, who this summer took on the case, previously argued Howard could not be impartial. The judge dismissed Romine's motion, a decision upheld by an appellate court.

In another disqualification motion, Romine said Thornton's original attorney claimed he told Thornton to plead guilty in part because the judge gave him the impression he would go easy on the teen.

According to the motion, former Assistant Public Defender Eric Evilsizer said in a deposition last month that an off-the-record talk with the judge and a prosecutor led him to believe his client was likely to get probation or juvenile sanctions.

Evilsizer could not remember full details of the conversation or where it took place, the motion stated.

Romine said in the motion that Howard's testimony was needed to either confirm Evilsizer's account or to rebut it.

Howard could not be reached Friday.

Romine said the judge made the right decision.

"(Evilsizer) is now somewhat blaming the judge for his advice," Romine said. "It's only fair that the judge can respond to that."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Judge withdraws from appeal of his tough sentence 09/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 1:03pm]
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