INVERNESS — After a fatal car crash in Citrus County landed a teenager in prison for 30 years, NAACP leaders, newspaper columnists and pastors cried foul.
Now a high-powered Tampa law firm has taken up William Thornton IV's cause.
On Wednesday, Stephen Romine, an attorney with Cohen, Jayson & Foster, filed paperwork seeking to set aside Thornton's conviction on the grounds of bad legal advice and to disqualify the judge who handed down the maximum sentence.
The issues Romine raises aren't new. But never before has Thornton had this level of legal muscle behind him or had his case made in such biting, exhaustive fashion.
The motions coincide with an election year that has the sentencing judge facing opposition for the first time since he joined the bench in 2000.
"A great injustice occurred," said Romine, who is doing the work pro bono. "If this system is going to have any credibility, we've got to know that people have at least the most basic legal rights protected."
Thornton was 17 and driving home to Sumter County late Dec. 28, 2004, when he skidded through a stop sign on a poorly lit road. He collided with a sport utility vehicle carrying Brandon Mushlit, 25, and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams, 23.
Neither victim wore a seat belt. Thrown from their vehicle, both died at the scene.
Thornton did not have a valid driver's license. He had no alcohol or drugs in his system and no criminal record at the time.
Prosecutors charged Thornton as an adult with two counts of vehicular homicide and offered no plea deal. The victims' families wanted nothing less than the maximum punishment.
In court documents, Romine picked apart what happened next. He said Eric Evilsizer, then an assistant public defender, concluded that Thornton would lose at trial, without ever conducting an investigation into the case.
The public defender never took depositions, interviewed witnesses, photographed or measured the scene, challenged or verified the Florida Highway Patrol's findings or consulted with experts, Romine wrote.
Evilsizer encouraged his client to plead no contest to the charges and put his sentence in the hands of Circuit Judge Ric Howard. Though the judge is known for tough punishments, the public defender assured his client that Howard would not give him the maximum sentence and would likely follow recommendations from the Department of Juvenile Justice for juvenile detention.
Romine also criticized Dale Merrill, an assistant public defender, for being unprepared to handle Thornton's September 2005 sentencing hearing. She spent one day reading Thornton's file even though she had never before handled a homicide case, Romine said.
Merrill and Evilsizer did not return calls for comment.
Romine wants Howard to disqualify himself from the case, arguing he cannot be impartial.
"The decision as to whether Mr. Thornton's attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel should be free from the imbedded stain of bias appearing to exist in the record," Romine wrote in a second motion.
Much of the argument focuses on Howard's statements and conduct during the July 2006 hearing, where he rejected Thornton's attempts to withdraw his plea.
In August 2007, an appeals court upheld Howard's decision, writing that he "did not abuse his discretion," but left open the possibility for an ineffective counsel challenge.
Romine argued in his motion that Howard overstepped his role as a neutral arbitrator while fending off criticism that he had exhibited racial bias against Thornton, who is black.
Romine, who has tried other cases in front of Howard and said he respects him, contends the judge also acted inappropriately by alluding to the 30-year prison sentence he gave Thornton's father two years before on theft charges.
Romine noted that this case is likely to land in court as Howard faces a re-election challenger this fall, Inverness attorney Rhonda Portwood. Thornton's plight still bristles many in Citrus, where an ongoing petition drive on the Internet has collected about 500 signatures asking the governor or clemency board to mediate his sentence.
"From Mr. Thornton's perspective, this court is not in a position to sit detached, cold and neutral on further issues of this case," Romine wrote.
Lola Thornton said Wednesday that her son, now 20, remains in good spirits. With Romine on their side, they are hoping and praying for the best.
"I'm still upset about the way things went, of course," she said. "I'm just glad that he stepped in."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.