Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard is the last person who should decide whether the 30-year prison sentence he imposed on William Thornton IV for a deadly traffic accident should be set aside. The judge already has demonstrated his bias against Thornton and is unlikely to overturn the outrageous sentence while running for re-election. Florida's 5th District Court of Appeal needs to remove Howard from the case, and Citrus prosecutors need to do their part to see justice done.
Thornton was 17 and driving home to Sumter County in December 2004 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. Neither victim wore a seat belt. Thrown from their vehicle, both died at the scene. Though Thornton had no criminal record and no drugs or alcohol in his system, he took the bad advice of his attorney and threw himself on the mercy of a judge known for handing down tough punishments.
Tampa attorney Stephen Romine, who has taken up Thornton's case pro bono, is seeking to set aside the 2005 conviction on the basis of bad lawyering and to remove Howard from the case. Romine calls the judge "adversarial" and biased, and the argument to remove Howard is clear and convincing: He went out of his way to paint Thornton as a bad person and became too personally involved in the case. Having him continue presents an obvious conflict. The judge would be sitting in judgment of his own behavior at the same time voters would be doing the same. That he waited all of six hours last week to reject a 47-page motion calling for his recusal makes it almost self-evident he needs to go.
Romine's attempt to give Thornton the reasonable defense he was originally denied will be undermined if the same judge who presided over this miscarriage of justice is given another bite at the apple. Romine said he will appeal Howard's order to the 5th District Court of Appeal, which needs to step in. The issue going forward need not be Howard's official conduct, but the series of missteps long before Thornton's case made it to court that robbed the teen of a fair and effective defense. Handing the case to a judge without interest in defending his own name is the only way for the criminal justice system to fairly address what Howard acknowledged, in a separate order last week, to be "numerous unresolved issues" in Thornton's defense.