On Dec. 16 and 17, I had the honor and the pleasure of sitting in a Marion County courthouse to see the judicial system work the way it is supposed to work. Three men – a judge, a defense attorney and a prosecutor – performed their jobs honorably to redress a gross injustice that never should have occurred. The occasion was the motion hearing for a new trial for 21-year-old William Thornton IV of Oxford.
In December 2004, Thornton, then a 17-year-old student at Lecanto High School, was driving home at night when he skidded through a stop sign and collided with a Chevy Blazer carrying Brandon Mushlit and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams. They did not wear seat belts and were ejected from the SUV. They died on the spot. Thornton was driving without a license. He was injured and was airlifted to a hospital. After being released from the hospital, Thornton went home and tried to resume as normal a life as possible.
The state and law enforcement took five months to build a case against the teenager and arrest him on two counts of vehicular homicide. Although he had no criminal record, Thornton was tried as an adult and sentenced to the maximum of 30 years in state prison.
Almost everything about the conviction and sentence was a miscarriage of justice. Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard, legendary for being tough on young offenders, ignored every important mitigating factor in the accident. The stop sign at the crash site was partly obstructed and hard to see. Thornton saw the sign at the last minute at the bottom of a hill and stepped on the brakes too late. He had no drugs or alcohol in his system. The driver of the other vehicle, however, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, the level at which Florida law presumes impairment. After the wreck, the county put up a sign warning motorists nearing the hill that a stop sign is on the other side.
Thornton went to court with a public defender, Eric Evilsizer, who poorly represented him, who advised the teen to plead no contest and seek the mercy of the court because the case was "untriable." Evilsizer assured Thornton he would get probation or juvenile sanctions.
Tampa attorney Steve Romine, 41, learned of Thornton's case in the local media and decided to represent the teen on a pro bono basis. He told me he took the case "because it was the right thing to do." He saw the injustice and refused to let it stand.
He filed a motion to set aside Thornton's plea and his conviction based on the grounds of ineffective legal counsel. On two occasions, Romine asked Howard to reconsider the sentence, but Howard refused. Howard removed himself from the case only after Romine moved to call him as a witness.
Judge William T. Swigert of Marion County replaced Howard and conducted the new hearing. Romine prevailed at the hearing, proving that Thornton was ineffectively represented.
He showed, among other shortcomings, that Evilsizer failed to carry out the rudiments of a defense. He did not conduct depositions, interview witnesses, independently challenge law enforcement's reports, examine the accident scene and vehicles in the crash, consult with accident reconstruction experts or present case law favorable to his client. Incredibly, Evilsizer met with Thornton only briefly before trial and left the case before sentencing. Romine referred to Evilsizer's behavior as "wholesale abandonment of the most basic assistance of counsel an accused is afforded." He also showed that Howard committed grievous errors that should never occur in a courtroom.
To his credit, Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman acknowledged that Thornton had gotten a raw deal. Swigert, a senior judge known for levity and fairness, weighed the mountain of evidence Romine laid out, released Thornton from prison, with an order to wear a monitoring device, and scheduled a new hearing in February to determine the status of the case. Will Buxman retry Thornton or will he offer him a plea?
What I witnessed during those two days gives me renewed hope that an indigent, minority person can get justice in a Central Florida court. Romine's defense of his client was dogged and thorough. Judge Swigert did everything I believe all judges should do, temper the letter of the law with appropriate humanity and mercy. The prosecutor did what all prosecutors should do in such a case: recognize the flaws and stop the proceedings rather than try to save face by prolonging the injustice.
That evening, Thornton went home with his mother and grandmother. All in all, it was a good day in court for everyone. It was a great day for the judicial system.