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Teen remains in legal limbo despite life sentence in Coquina Key killing

LARGO —The 16-year-old boy in the jail-issue jumpsuit stood and accepted his sentence — life in prison with a chance to get out in 25 years — but not even the judge knew if that would hold.

Franco Harris Thomas and two friends beat a 20-year-old college student to death on Coquina Key in 2012. They used a shotgun as a club because they had forgotten the shells.

Thomas was convicted of first-degree murder this year, and in the past would have spent the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole. But a relatively recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the slow machinations of the state Legislature and judicial system have left the boy, who was 14 at the time of the murder, in legal limbo.

"We may not have closure," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone said as he levied the sentence.

In June 2012, just a month before Thomas and his two friends bludgeoned Jeremy Mayers to death, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Miller vs. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.

Two years later, the Florida Legislature updated the state's sentencing guidelines — approving a bill that took effect July 1 and instructs that juveniles convicted of murder can still be sentenced to life in prison but only after a judge holds a full hearing and only if their case can be reviewed after 25 years. If a judge determines life in prison is not warranted, the minimum sentence for a young killer is 40 years.

But that law was not in effect when Thomas killed Mayers, and the Florida Supreme Court is deciding how best to apply the Miller decision to past cases. Justices were set to hear oral arguments on two cases regarding the issue earlier this month. If they rule that a life sentence with the possibility for parole after 25 years is legal under Miller, Bulone's decision will be final.

Despite the uncertainty, friends and family of both Thomas and Mayers packed the courtroom Tuesday. Christine Mayers spoke of her son in a letter addressed to Thomas, describing the 20-year-old as happy and driven to complete his studies.

"Your evil actions broke my family circle," she told Thomas, who sat silently next to his attorney. Behind him, a relative cried while Mayers described her son as "oh so very trusting."

"I would tell him that there were evil people that would take advantage of his kindness and trust," she said. "He saw the good in everyone."

According to investigators, Thomas and two 16-year-olds, Scionti Hill and Brittany Detwiler, were involved in the slaying. Detwiler had met Mayers online and called him to have sex at a home on Sea Robin Drive SE. Afterward, Hill and Thomas planned to rob him.

Mayers fought back and the boys beat him, leaving his body outside the home and taking his car. Hill and Detwiler both pleaded guilty. Hill was sentenced to 35 years in prison, and Detwiler is expected to be sentenced later this year.

Frank Louderback, Thomas' attorney, said they too were offered a plea deal by the prosecution but opted to go to trial based in part on the Miller decision. Louderback said the state's deal was not much better than the worst possible outcome before a jury.

Thomas does not know the legal issues at hand "on the level of a lawyer," Louderback said, but "he understands that it's not a cut-and-dried sentencing situation."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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