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Criminal justice system failed in Thornton case

In the case of Thomas Thornton, the credibility of the criminal justice system in Pasco County has taken a beating.

Because of sloppy work all around, a man facing some of the most terrible accusations imaginable is left in limbo because he didn't get a fair trial.

Thornton was accused in March 1993 of sexually molesting seven elementary schoolchildren as he participated in a team taking school photographs.

In the space of two days, Pasco County sheriff's Detective Cliff Blum determined that Thornton was guilty. Blum found guilt without any assistance from experts of the state Child Protective Team, who make it their business to evaluate the truthfulness of children's statements.

He found guilt without studying the chronology of the alleged victims' complaints or how they interacted with each other on a school bus home from school. He found guilt without even interviewing Thornton's photographic assistant, or two other photographers, who worked in the same room with Thornton the day he is alleged to have molested the children. Blum also failed to tape record statements.

The conduct of state prosecutors also was questionable. Rather than demand an adequate investigation to determine the veracity of allegations against Thornton, they offered Thornton a deal. In exchange for his cooperation, they would reduce his penalties. No jail. No judicial finding of guilt.

Prosecutors approached Thornton's case as though it were a game. When Thornton maintained his innocence, they upped the ante by charging him with seven felonies. This, despite an admittedly faulty case. The inescapable conclusion here is that Thornton was punished for refusing to admit guilt; for having the audacity to take the case to trial.

Given the contradictions of witnesses and lack of evidence, one might wonder why the state attorney's office bothered to prosecute the case at all. One possible answer is politics. If the office of State Attorney Bernie McCabe were to set free an accused child molester, it might look bad. And McCabe must seek re-election every four years in the 6th Judicial Circuit covering Pasco and Pinellas counties.

After the case was set for trial, Thornton was poorly served by his own counsel. His attorney made tactical errors that failed to reveal glaring inconsistencies in the testimony of the young accusers. He was no match for the prosecutors who coyly managed to place in the jurors minds that something awful had occurred between Thornton and children at a Tarpon Springs elementary school in 1991.

In fact, if Thornton had done anything improper then, there was no proof, and certainly no criminal investigation.

In four weeks of examining the case, Times reporters revealed numerous problems that indicated Thornton did not get a fair trial. Jurors even said they thought that he stood to get a minor punishment.

After his conviction, he hired well-known Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen, who on Friday echoed the Times report and managed to get his client released on bail _ an extraordinary move for a convicted child molester. The state offered no resistance, and a new trial is anticipated.

Whether he is eventually exonerated, he has lost much more than reputation and money spent on lawyers. There will be great doubt in many quarters that he was guilty _ and maybe he is. Unfortunately the agencies charged with gathering a preponderence of evidence failed, and thus failed both Thornton and his young accusers.

They also failed the community.