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Tragedy and travesty

If the courts don't reduce William Thornton IV's 30-year sentence, the governor and clemency board should step in.

A Times Editorial
Published November 7, 2005

Look up the word "travesty" in the dictionary and William Thornton IV should come to mind. The young man who had no criminal record was recently sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in a tragic traffic accident that left two people dead - a sentence more severe than those for some murderers and child molesters.

Thornton's harsh punishment was the result of a perfect storm of inadequate lawyering and vindictive sentencing. But things can still be set right. The courts have the opportunity to set aside Thornton's conviction and set the stage for a new trial, or modify his sentence. And if they don't act, the governor and the state clemency board should.

Thornton was only 17 when he took the advice of his public defender and pleaded no contest to two charges of vehicular homicide arising from a Citrus County traffic accident. Two people who weren't wearing seat belts died in December after Thornton, who didn't have a driver's license, ran a stop sign while speeding. After cresting a hill, Thornton was surprised by the coming intersection and tried unsuccessfully to use the brakes and the emergency brake to stop before entering the crossroad where the crash occurred. Since the accident, a sign has been posted warning motorists of the stop sign ahead.

Thornton said he was advised by his attorney to seek the mercy of the court rather than go to trial. He expected to receive a sentence comparable to what was recommended by state corrections and juvenile justice officials - house arrest or a couple of years of juvenile detention.

But Circuit Judge Ric Howard is partial to unduly harsh sentences, particularly for juveniles. Howard sentenced Thornton to two 15-year sentences to be served consecutively, the maximum allowable under state law.

Thornton received bad advice from his public defender, who has since left public service. An open plea before a judge known for aggressive sentencing was a recipe for injustice. Now, the Office of the Public Defender for the 5th Judicial Circuit is trying to correct matters.

Thornton's new public defenders have filed an appeal before the 5th District Court of Appeal, asserting among other claims that Thornton's plea wasn't voluntary due to his youth and lack of appreciation of the potential consequences. This seems like a promising and justifiable basis for reversal. At the same time, Thornton's attorneys have asked Howard to allow Thornton to withdraw his plea, or grant a sentencing rehearing, or modify the original sentence.

Unfortunately, the State Attorney's Office is refusing to lend its support to a modification of Thornton's sentence. Do prosecutors really think justice or taxpayers are served by warehousing this young man for the next 30 years?

Yes, two people died and Thornton should face serious consequences for his actions. But the sentence meted out, while technically legal, is shockingly out of proportion to the offense. What Thornton did was unintentional. He should not be punished as if he set out to harm his victims.

Meanwhile, Howard should be removed from the case. During Thornton's sentencing, Howard disparagingly referred to the criminal record of Thornton's father, specifically pointing to the 30-year sentence that Howard himself imposed last year. This suggests that a consideration beyond Thornton's own conduct entered the sentencing determination.

If the courts don't sharply reduce Thornton's sentence to something more in accordance with the recommendations of state officials, then the governor and clemency board should step in. After two years following Thornton's conviction, the governor, with the approval of two Cabinet members, can commute Thornton's sentence to make it less severe.

Gov. Bush can look to his own family for an example of this kind of tragedy and how the legal system can deal compassionately with tragic traffic accidents. When his sister-in-law and our country's first lady was 17 years old, the then-Laura Welch ran a stop sign in Midland, Texas, striking a car and killing a young man. In that case, no charges were filed.

Thornton's life should not be ruined because he received some bad legal advice and had the misfortune to ask for mercy before a judge who has none to give.

[Last modified November 7, 2005, 01:10:19]

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