Short of incarcerating or executing the innocent, few injustices rank up there with the case of William Thornton IV, the teenager sentenced to 30 years in prison for a fatal traffic accident in Citrus County in 2004. Now a powerful Tampa law firm has taken up his defense, which was left bare at trial thanks to poor lawyering and a judge who lacked a sense of proportion and justice.
Thornton, who was 17 at the time, was driving home to Sumter County late that December when he skidded past a stop sign on a poorly lit road and collided with an SUV carrying Brandon Mushlit, 25, and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams. Both died at the scene. Neither was wearing a seat belt. Though Thornton had no drugs or alcohol in his system, and no criminal record, he made the mistake of taking his public defender's advice, throwing himself on the mercy of a judge who showed none.
Thornton's fate was almost preordained by a system that treated him like a number. Prosecutors charged him as an adult with two counts of vehicular homicide and offered no plea deal. His public defender concluded, without investigating the case on his own, that Thornton would lose at trial and encouraged him to plead no contest and put his fate in the hands of Judge Ric Howard, who is known for handing down harsh punishments, especially to young offenders.
By intervening in the case, Stephen L. Romine, an attorney with Cohen, Jayson & Foster, hopes to lay the basis to present a full and fair defense on Thornton's behalf. Romine is seeking to set aside Thornton's conviction on the grounds of ineffective legal counsel. He said Thornton's attorney never took depositions, photographed or measured the accident scene, interviewed witnesses or challenged the authorities' version of events. He also wants Howard, who is up for re-election this year, to remove himself from the case, which is warranted.
The Cohen firm is known for going to the mat for its clients, and if any case cries out for investigative muscle and resources, this one does. Two people died and Thornton needs to be held accountable. He did not have a valid license and drove through the intersection. But there also are mitigating factors to take into account — circumstances at both the accident scene and in the way he was treated by the justice system.
The entire community should be relieved that the Cohen firm came forward to take this case pro bono. As Romine told the Times' Colleen Jenkins and John Frank: "If this system is going to have any credibility, we've got to know that people have at least the most basic legal rights protected."