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Will a father see the same justice as his son?

Today in Tallahassee, the state clemency board has a chance to right a wrong involving prison inmate Michael Thornton.

If his name is familiar — particularly said in the same breath with ideas like justice evenly applied, or a prison system that can swallow people whole without anyone much noticing — maybe it's the headlines about his son, William.

In 2004, 17-year-old William Thornton was driving at night in Citrus County when he skidded past a hard-to-see stop sign and into the path of an SUV. Two people were killed in a tragic, terrible accident.

He wasn't drinking or on drugs. He also didn't have a license. Ill-advised by his public defender and apparently written off by a judge, he got 30 years in prison. That's more than child abusers, armed robbers and rapists sometimes get.

But people noticed. People said 30 years was throwing a kid away for a terrible mistake. Some wondered if a white teenager with a pricey lawyer might have fared better. Eventually, a fighter of a lawyer took the case, pointed to Thornton's viable defenses and other troubling aspects of what happened in court, and convinced a different judge that William didn't deserve decades in prison. And in 2009, after serving three years and seven months, he was out on probation.

His father Michael Thornton's case was no headline grabber, pretty typical until the sentence.

He had been in trouble before on charges of using stolen credit cards and bouncing checks. But he joined a Christian ministry he said helped turn his life around, and he hadn't been arrested in years.

A psychiatrist who hired Thornton's lawn service had given him nice furniture and other things to donate to the ministry before. But the doctor denied giving Thornton a bag of coins and jewelry that Thornton pawned.

Offered 26 months in prison and then probation, Thornton said he was innocent.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard pronounced him "incredibly guilty" and gave him 30 years.

That's the same sentence the same judge would later give Thornton's son, mentioning his father's case in court, a troubling detail. And that's three decades in prison for crimes involving property, not hurting people.

A 20-year-old Brandon man was recently sentenced to six years of probation after he drove at least 83 mph and hit a tree, killing his passenger. A Pasco father convicted of inflicting severe brain injuries on his baby son got half Thornton's sentence, 15 years in prison. A man who crashed his truck into an SUV on a Christmas day and killed three people got 12 years in prison in a plea deal.

A guy who stole a woman's purse, ran over a good Samaritan, rammed a deputy's cruiser and injured a detective? He got 30 like Michael Thornton. Yes, details and evidence vary, sometimes greatly, but does this sound right to you?

Thorton's case is scheduled for 9 a.m., first on a list of 98 to be considered by Gov. Rick Scott and the rest of the clemency board. The people who see injustice in that 30 years — and who hope his sentence can be commuted now that he has served seven — get 10 minutes to make their case.

And the clemency board gets a chance to right a quiet wrong that easily might have gone unnoticed.

Will a father see the same justice as his son? 09/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:08pm]
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