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Thornton supporters hope Clemency Board will reunite father, son

William Thornton got a new shot at life when his 30-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide charges was vacated.

But he still is not whole.

His father remains behind bars with his own 30-year sentence, sent away by the same Citrus County judge for pawning items he swears he didn't steal.

"Part of me is still in that prison as long as my father is," William Thornton wrote recently.

Michael Thornton's best hope for relief rests with the Florida Cabinet, whose members also make up the state Clemency Board. They have the power to commute his sentence to a lesser penalty.

The final meeting before the four current members leave office is Dec. 9. Gov. Charlie Crist said last week he would seek a posthumous pardon of Jim Morrison, the rock icon who was convicted of exposing himself during a Miami concert in 1969.

Supporters of Michael Thornton, who turned 54 on Saturday, say his case also deserves consideration. "I find it encouraging," Tampa attorney Stephen Romine said of Morrison's potential pardon. "I am sure the governor has even more compassion and understanding for the living."

Romine played a key role in changing the fate of William Thornton, whose story has been well publicized.

Despite assurances from his public defender, the younger Thornton received the maximum punishment for charges stemming from a 2004 car crash that killed two people. He was barely 18 when sentenced and had no prior arrests.

He was incarcerated more than 3 1/2 years before Romine convinced a judge that the young man was the victim of bad lawyering. The new judge sentenced William Thornton to probation.

Romine is among those who have shifted their attention to the plight of William Thornton's father.

Michael Thornton has not been successful in appealing his own 2004 conviction for nonviolent property crimes, which occurred eight months before his son's crash.

He insists that one of his lawn care customers, a psychiatrist, donated to him some coins and jewelry that Thornton later openly pawned. He says important witnesses were not called to testify at his bench trial.

The evidence Circuit Judge Ric Howard did hear led him to declare Michael Thornton "incredibly guilty" and order a 30-year prison term.

The elder Thornton had a prior felony record from years earlier but had never served prison time.

If he had accepted a plea offer — 26 months in prison and three years of probation — he would already be home with his son.

"I just really feel like they both got a raw deal," said Inverness attorney Rhonda Portwood, who is representing Michael Thornton for free.

Last month, his supporters met with the Clemency Board members' aides in Tallahassee to pitch putting Michael Thornton's case on the Dec. 9 agenda. The group included his attorney, family members, friends and a man who became one of the Thorntons' biggest advocates after reading about their court cases in the newspaper.

They waited years just to get that brief audience. They talked about his military service, work ethic and dedication to his family and the ministry that helped him overcome a drug problem. They noted his near-perfect disciplinary record during his more than six years in prison.

They haven't heard yet whether the aides will recommend that the full board consider Michael Thornton's case. They worry about having to start all over with a new administration.

Under clemency rules, any member of the board could put the case on the agenda. The votes of two members plus the governor would be required to reduce his sentence.

The judge and prosecutor involved in Michael Thornton's case declined to comment last week on his clemency efforts.

The psychiatrist also did not comment. He favored prison time for Thornton but has previously said he was surprised by the sentence.

Ultimately, Romine said, the board does not need to weigh in on Michael Thornton's guilt or innocence or the legality of his punishment. "Exercising mercy doesn't mean that you're alleviating the conviction," Romine said. "It doesn't mean that you're questioning the judge's discretion. It's not even a comment about what initially happened.

"It is an act of, 'We think you've been punished enough,' " he said. "They have the power to change people's lives. How often do you really get that chance?"

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

Thornton supporters hope Clemency Board will reunite father, son 11/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 22, 2010 11:25pm]

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