It took a retired judge and a volunteer attorney to ensure that William Thornton IV would not be another faceless victim of an unjust judicial system. In an Ocala courtroom last week, Senior Circuit Judge William T. Swigert sentenced Thornton to six years of youthful offender probation for his part in a 2004 car crash that killed two people in Citrus County. The ruling is a fair sentence and a new lease on a life for a deserving young man condemned to decades in prison by the trial judge in the case.
Thornton's ordeal began on the night of Dec. 28, 2004. Seventeen at the time and without a driver's license, Thornton skidded through a stop sign on a desolate, poorly lit road and collided with a Chevy Blazer. The SUV's driver, Brandon Mushlit, 25, and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams, 23, died after being ejected from the vehicle. Neither wore a seat belt.
Although Thornton had no criminal record and had not been drinking, the state tried him as an adult. At the original trial, he was poorly represented by two public defenders. One gave Thornton the impression that the trial judge, Ric Howard, would offer him probation. But Howard imposed the maximum 30-year sentence.
Tampa attorney Stephen Romine was outraged and took both Thornton's lawyers and the trial judge to task. Working pro bono, he embarrassed Howard enough under questioning that Swigert realized the decks had been stacked. Swigert vacated Thornton's conviction and 30-year sentence in December. On Wednesday, having served three years, seven months and four days, Thornton again pleaded no contest. This time he found justice. With time served, he faces 28 months' probation.
This was a fair sentence and a fitting end to a shared tragedy.