The ruling in an Ocala courtroom Wednesday that set aside the conviction and 30-year prison sentence for William Thornton IV restores confidence in America's justice system. Three years after Thornton's public defender failed to provide adequate counsel and a heavy-handed judge imposed an unduly harsh sentence, this courtroom looked much different. Thornton had a competent attorney by his side, faced a principled prosecutor and had a fair-minded judge on the bench. Now the young man has a chance to properly defend himself against charges stemming from a 2004 Citrus County traffic accident that killed two people.
The facts in this case have never been disputed. In December 2004, Thornton, then a 17-year-old Lecanto High School student without a driver's license, was speeding at night when he skidded past a partially obstructed stop sign. He 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.
Although Thornton had no criminal record, the state tried him as an adult. Eric Evilsizer, Thornton's first attorney, had never handled a vehicular homicide case. He advised his client to plead no contest and seek the mercy of the court. Evilsizer gave this advice after just one meeting with Thornton.
Thornton's new attorney, Stephen Romine, convinced Senior Circuit Judge William T. Swigert and even an assistant state attorney this week that Evilsizer's poor representation, combined with bad decisions by the original trial judge, Ric Howard, amounted to injustice. Romine showed that the public defender failed to conduct basic pretrial investigations and that he misled Thornton into believing that the judge would offer him probation or juvenile sanctions. From the witness stand, Howard claimed he had made no such offer.
The testimony was so overwhelming that Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman asked Swigert to stop the hearing and grant Thornton's motion to set aside his sentence and conviction. Thornton was released on his own recognizance, required to wear a monitoring device and not allowed to drive. He will either face a new trial or work out a resolution with the prosecutor, who told the court the charges would not be dropped.
Thornton was denied justice three years ago, and that wrong has finally been corrected. Now the legal system — and Thornton — have another chance to appropriately resolve the case.