TALLAHASSEE — Despite tearful pleas by relatives of Michael Thornton, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence for theft, Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday rejected the Citrus County man's petition to be set free.
Scott and the three Cabinet members, meeting as the Board of Executive Clemency, voted unanimously to keep Thornton locked up at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, where he has spent the past seven years for stealing jewelry and coins from an Inverness psychiatrist who was a customer of his landscaping business.
Under clemency rules, a sole no vote by Scott defeats any request.
"I deny the petition for commutation of sentence," Scott announced.
Thornton, 54, has said the customer donated the valuables to him, which he then sold at a pawn shop. Thornton rejected a plea agreement that would have sent him to prison for about two years.
At the Capitol, Thornton's sister and son pleaded with state officials to release him, arguing that the sentence handed down by Circuit Judge Ric Howard, who called Thornton "incredibly guilty," was unreasonably cruel.
"Continuing his incarceration for another 23 years is a waste of our taxpayers' money when he can take care of himself," said his sister, Michelle Thornton Taylor of Orlando.
Son William Thornton, 24, of Wildwood began crying as he pleaded for mercy, noting that his mother died recently.
Clutching a box containing his mother's ashes, the son said: "It's hard to lose a mother and to lose a dad, too. I just want to see my dad, at least for his final years."
The Florida Parole Commission, which does background investigations of clemency cases, recommended that the elder Thornton's petition be denied.
The agency noted it received a letter from the owner of the coins and jewelry, psychiatrist Parmanand Gurnani, who opposed Thornton's release.
"Mr. Thornton still has not taken responsibility for his actions and is not remorseful," Gurnani wrote. "Mr. Thornton said I gave him the jewelry. I would never give away family jewelry that was of sentimental value. … My family has not recovered all of the jewelry that was taken."
The other clemency board members are Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
After the vote, Scott said sitting in judgment of people seeking clemency is one of the toughest parts of his job as governor. Scott said that no single factor influences his decision but that testimony from victims weighs heavily on his mind.
"If it was black and white, it would be easy. It's not," said Scott, a lawyer. "But I have a belief that judges and juries want to do the right thing."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.