OCALA — William Thornton had been through this before.
He had pleaded no contest to vehicular homicide charges stemming from a 2004 car crash that killed two people in Citrus County.
He had believed the public defenders who promised that a judge wouldn't send him to prison. He landed there anyway on a 30-year sentence, then served three years, seven months and four days until a veteran defense attorney persuaded a different judge to throw out the conviction.
On Wednesday, Thornton stood before that judge and next to that attorney and again pleaded no contest to vehicular homicide.
The victims' families were still upset about their losses, still wanted him to pay.
But this time, after hearing nearly four hours of evidence and argument, Senior Circuit Judge William Swigert decided that Thornton didn't deserve to be considered a felon or spend decades in prison.
The retired judge sentenced Thornton, 21, to six years of youthful offender probation. Because he gets credit for the time he has already served, Thornton will spend about 28 months on probation.
He will not have a conviction on his record.
"I think this is a fair sentence," Swigert said.
The decision ended an ordeal that began late Dec. 28, 2004, when Thornton, then 17, skidded through a stop sign on a poorly lit, desolate road and collided with a sport utility vehicle. The SUV's driver, Brandon Mushlit, 25, and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams, 23, died after being thrown from the vehicle.
Thornton had no prior criminal record and no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the wreck. He did not have a driver's license.
He pleaded no contest just three weeks after his first meeting with a public defender and left his fate in the hands of Circuit Judge Ric Howard, who gave him the maximum penalty allowed.
The stiff sentence infuriated many in the community. Some people accused Howard, a white judge, of showing racial bias against Thornton, who is black.
Last summer, the case got new life after Stephen Romine, an attorney with Cohen, Jayson & Foster in Tampa, took up Thornton's cause at no charge to the young man's family.
Under Romine's questioning during a hearing last December, Howard said he would not have allowed Thornton to enter his plea had he known about the lack of investigation the teen's public defenders did on the case.
The judge's testimony prompted Swigert to find that the teen had been the victim of bad lawyering. The senior judge vacated the 30-year sentence and released Thornton from prison.
The serious charges still loomed. On Wednesday, lawyers reconvened before Swigert to determine whether the case could be resolved through a plea or should proceed to trial. This time, Thornton wore a tan suit instead of a jail uniform.
Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman said Thornton should spend several more years in prison, followed by a long probation.
The judicial system had fixed the issue of Thornton's previous inadequate legal representation, Buxman said. But the prosecutor argued that the young man remained at fault for causing the fatal crash by speeding, running a stop sign and driving without a license.
Romine, however, said the crash was an accident, not a crime. Speed alone, he said, did not rise to the level of recklessness needed to prove vehicular homicide charges.
Mushlit's own family had called the stop sign that appeared without warning at the bottom of a hill "a hidden trap" when they sued the county after his death for failing to properly mark the roads, Romine said.
Thornton "drove into a trap," Romine said. "You can't assess a danger if you don't know a danger exists."
Romine also pointed out that neither of the victims wore seat belts at the time of the crash and that Mushlit had cocaine in his urine and a blood-alcohol level of 0.112.
After hearing his new sentence, Thornton turned to the victims' families. Earlier in the afternoon, they had accused him of seeming unremorseful.
He spoke so softly that they had a hard time hearing what he said.
"I apologize," he said. "I'm sorry for what happened. I've thought about it every day. I wish that you would forgive me."
Mushlit's and Williams' mothers walked out of the courtroom and said they didn't want to talk about the sentence.
But the dead woman's grandparents lingered inside. Hubert Siner, Sara Jo's grandfather, leaned over Thornton's mother and grandmother and said he was sorry for what they had gone through. He didn't hold a grudge against the young man, he said.
Grandmother Sarah Siner directed her words to Thornton.
"I forgive you," she said.
They both began to cry.
Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.