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With probation, William Thornton receives real justice

Anyone who has spent time in a criminal courtroom — longtime judges and seen-it-all prosecutors, well-heeled defense lawyers and well-worn public defenders — can tell you about different kinds of justice.

Justice — which says crime comes with consequence, and which makes it possible to live with the bad things that happen in the world — sometimes is doled out equally and fairly, without emotion, prejudice or, God forbid, politics.

But another kind of justice is more arbitrary and messy. It's the kind that seems to take into account who you are and what you have, or include those God-forbid politics, or personal prejudice, or personality, or something else that doesn't belong in the mix. Getting justice that way can be slow — if justice ever shows up at all.

A young man named William Thornton knows both kinds.

By all rights, you shouldn't even remember his name. One night five years ago, when he was 17 and didn't have a driver's license, he skidded through a stop sign on a badly lit country road in Citrus County and into the path of an SUV. The driver, Brandon Mushlit and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams, were killed.

It was a tragic accident and a terrible mistake.

Thornton, who had no record, who wasn't drinking, trusted his public defenders when they said he would get something less than prison if he pleaded no contest. Instead, Circuit Judge Ric Howard hammered him with the max — a stunning 30 years.

Usually, cases like Thornton's make a few headlines and disappear, since there is always fresh tragedy. But for Thornton came another kind of justice, in the form of strangers who said this was not right, not fair. That he was black and represented by a lawyer for the poor did not go unnoticed. They took up his cause and rallied and refused to let the headlines die, refused to let him fade away nameless.

All of which caught the eye of the sort of lawyer Thornton never could have afforded, one who took over his case for free.

Stephen Romine of the big-name Barry Cohen law firm went at it, arguing that no real investigation had been done in Thornton's defense, that the intersection was already a dangerous trap, that the victims hadn't worn seat belts and the other driver had been drinking.

He also showed a new judge Thornton's gift, his art, the impressive pencil sketches he did for fellow inmates in prison. He talked of Thornton earning his GED there, and the high marks he got in the computer repair classes he took while doing his time.

This week, the judge set Thornton free to serve a probation sentence. Now it's up to him to make his way in the world, with a second chance from the kind of justice he should have received in the first place.

There are those who lost someone they loved in that terrible wreck who wanted more than the three years and seven months Thornton spent in prison. But Sara Jo Williams' grandmother said she forgave him, and maybe in all of that, there is some justice, too.

The day after Thornton went free, I asked his lawyer how rare he thought this case.

"There are probably hundreds if not thousands," he said, "of other William Thorntons sitting somewhere right now."

With probation, William Thornton receives real justice 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 11:31pm]
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