William Thornton quietly waits for justice, is thankful for hope

Florida State Prison inmate U24109 — or William, to his mother — has filled up his first years of waiting.

He got his GED and finished an 18-month course that could get him a job fixing computers on the outside, someday. He worked in food service and in what the prison calls "unskilled labor." What William Thornton IV, now 20, has not done is get in trouble, according to prison records.

And he has drawn.

Pencil on paper, his drawings caught the Tampa lawyer who came to the North Florida prison to take his case by surprise. Thornton has drawn the faces of his mother and his grandmother, a picture of a house for sale he got from a newspaper. Sometimes, he draws faces of other inmates' families for them. The new lawyer, the one determined to change his fate, says the drawings are detailed and professional and even gifted.

Thornton is close to his mother, says attorney Steve Romine. This way he has her here, looking back at him on paper.

"I think it probably keeps him close," the lawyer says.

Thornton was a small-town 17-year-old with no criminal record when he made the mistake that changed everything.

In criminal court, "mistake" usually means drinking or drugs, greed or a gun or hurting someone in anger. He did none of that.

What he did in Citrus County one night in 2004 was drive a car without a license, miss a stop sign at a badly lit intersection, hit the brakes and skid into the path of an SUV. It was a terrible accident and a tragedy. Brandon Mushlit and his girlfriend Sara Jo Williams were thrown from the SUV and killed.

Neither was wearing a seat belt. Mushlit had been drinking. Those details are not intended to blame the victims, but they are circumstances of this case.

By now maybe you've heard the story of Thornton's defense, or lack thereof.

When his public defender advised him to plead no contest to vehicular homicide, he did, ready to take his punishment. Romine would later say the PD did this without investigating a defense, interviewing witnesses or verifying evidence. Romine says the teenager was misled.

State authorities recommended juvenile sanctions. But the PD apparently did not take into account Judge Ric Howard's reputation for being especially hard on young defendants standing before him.

And so the hammer fell on Thornton: 30 years in prison, a punishment that does not fit the crime.

The judge would not let him withdraw his plea (no "do-over," he said), and an appeals court called the sentence legal. Some wondered if Thornton was treated differently because he is black. The judge denied that and refused to take himself off the case. He is up for re-election, another detail to consider.

Romine, of the powerhouse firm of Barry Cohen and cases including Jennifer Porter and the Aisenbergs, is working free on this one. In his eyes, and the eyes of many others, it's that unjust.

His new client is quiet, he says. He listens. He looks like an ordinary college kid, but for the prison blues. "He's very thankful he has not been forgotten," Romine says.

And so a kid who made a terrible mistake sits in prison, waiting to see what his life will be.

"He hasn't lost the ability to smile," Romine says. "He still has hope."

William Thornton quietly waits for justice, is thankful for hope 06/17/08 [Last modified: Sunday, June 22, 2008 4:49pm]

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