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Righting a legal wrong

Finally, there may be some justice for William Thornton IV. Three years after receiving an outrageous 30-year prison sentence for killing two in a Citrus County car accident, the young man's case comes before a new judge Tuesday in Ocala. Thornton has a new attorney, and the courts have a new chance to remedy an unjust sentence.

The facts of the 2004 accident are not in dispute. Thornton, then a 17-year-old Lecanto High School student, was speeding as he drove home. He skidded past a stop sign in the dark and hit a Chevy Blazer carrying Brandon Mushlit, 25, and his girlfriend, Sara Jo Williams, 23. Neither wore a seat belt, and both died at the scene. Thornton was driving without a license. Although he had no criminal record, Thornton was tried as an adult on two charges of vehicular homicide. Now 21, Thornton sits in a state prison in Jasper.

Unaccountably, all important mitigating factors in the accident were ignored by Circuit Judge Ric Howard. Thornton had no drugs or alcohol in his system. The stop sign at the crash site was mostly obstructed and hard to see. And Thornton was poorly represented at trial by a public defender who, believing the case was not "triable," advised him to plead no contest and seek the mercy of the court. The idea was that he would get probation or juvenile sanctions. Howard inexplicably imposed a 30-year prison sentence.

Now Thorton's new lawyer, Stephen L. Romine, who has taken the case pro bono, has filed a motion seeking to set aside Thornton's plea of no contest and his conviction based on the grounds of ineffective legal counsel. Romine said the public defender failed to conduct depositions, interview witnesses, independently challenge law enforcement's version of events, photograph or otherwise examine the accident scene, examine the vehicles in the crash or consult with any experts regarding accident reconstruction.

Thornton will also face a different judge than Howard, who is legendary for handing down unduly harsh sentences to young offenders. Romine asked Howard twice to remove himself from the case. Howard did, but only after Romine called him as a witness for this week's hearing. The new judge is William T. Swigert of Marion County, and the hope is that he will weigh all of the mitigating factors when making his decision.

If Romine prevails at the hearing and the conviction is set aside, Thornton probably would face the same charges of vehicular homicide. But unlike before, he would have every option available to properly defend himself. He could proceed to a new trial or agree to a resolution offered by the prosecution. Or the prosecution could drop the charges, which Romine says is unlikely.

Thornton was responsible for two deaths and deserves to be punished. But the punishment should be fair and appropriate, and Thornton's constitutional rights must be protected. His first sentence was terribly unjust, and this is an opportunity for the legal system to right a wrong.

Righting a legal wrong 12/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:33pm]

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