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Judge grants bail for convicted felon

Former school photographer Thomas Thornton has won a rare privilege for a convicted felon _ being freed on bail while his lawyer prepares to seek a new trial.

A judge granted the request Friday after hearing Thornton's lawyer, Barry Cohen, argue that Thornton's student fondling trial was hopelessly tainted by blunders Thornton's trial attorney committed.

Cohen also requested more time to research the case and prepare arguments for a hearing where he could show "if justice was done or whether (it) was in fact dubious justice."

"Dubious justice" was the headline on a Times story Friday that examined the case against Thornton. The Times found the investigation was cursory and his defense was crippled. It further revealed the failings of defense attorney David Rankin were only one of several problems that could have influenced the jury's decision.

Finding that Thornton had strong ties to the community and was not a flight risk, Circuit Judge Craig Villanti set Thornton's bail at $25,000. He gave Cohen two months to prepare arguments for a new trial.

The father of one of the fondling victims had asked Villanti not to release Thornton, saying his daughter "is kind of scared" of Thornton.

Another victim's father, who did not attend the hearing, contacted the Times to reiterate his belief in his daughter and the other victims.

"I don't want the children to be made the blame for what happened to this guy," the father said.

He said when he learned that a group of Tarpon Springs Elementary students had complained about Thornton's conduct in 1991, it reinforced his conviction that Thornton was guilty in the 1993 incident.

"I just want people to know that, if he (Thornton) gets off, it's not because he didn't do it. It's because they can't prove it."

On Sept. 16, Thornton, 58, was convicted of molesting seven children as he posed them for portraits during photo day at Mary Giella Elementary School. The convictions, on five felony fondling and two misdemeanor touching charges, could mean up to 12 years in prison.

Cohen cited the Times story in support of his attempts to get Thornton bail and then a new trial. If the story was accurate, Cohen told Villanti, then "the very things that I have suggested in my motion become accurate."

One problem was "the basic theory of defense that this lawyer tried to advance or didn't try to advance," said Cohen.

Rankin failed to present an expert to testify about the phenomenon of false accusations from children, said Cohen.

Jurors told the Times they couldn't understand how the children could have possibly conspired against Thornton. What the expert could have explained was that it doesn't take any conspiracy, Cohen said. It could have been hysteria.

That would have given the jurors a way to explain the allegations, he said, without having to believe the children conspired.

Another problem Cohen pointed to was Rankin's misunderstanding of the rule on introducing witnesses to challenge the children's stories. That meant Rankin referred to inconsistencies in his opening statement but never fully delivered.

Those problems and others added up to a need for a new trial, Cohen said, and weighed in favor of granting Thornton bail.

"He's going to come back to this court, your honor," said Cohen. "You're probably going to grant this man a new trial."

Prosecutor Richard Mensh disagreed, saying that Thornton's trial was entirely fair. But he did not argue against granting Thornton bail.

Why not? Mensh was asked after the hearing.

"We always try to do what's right," he said.

Although Judge Villanti granted bail at about 10 a.m. Friday, Thornton was still in jail late Friday night. At 8 p.m. jail officials told his waiting family that he would not be released until all seven victims were notified in person.

Pasco County Sheriff Lee Cannon said Friday that he will review his agency's role in the criminal case against Thornton.

"It always causes me concern when there is some insinuation that one of the detectives here may have not done the type of investigation they were capable of doing," Cannon said after reading the Times report, which pointed out flaws in the case against Thornton.

"I certainly intend to look into what the details of the investigation were and whether or not anything was overlooked or left out."

The Times found that sheriff's Detective Cliff Blum concluded that Thornton had molested children after a single day's investigation. At that point in the investigation, Blum had talked to the children, the accusers, but to none who might have witnessed the crime or refuted the allegations.