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Judge denies request to withdraw plea

William Thornton was 17 when he crashed his car into another car in central Citrus. The two people in the other car were killed.

Published July 28, 2006

INVERNESS — William Thornton IV pleaded no contest to a fatal car wreck that killed two Citrus County residents in 2004 and no contest is what he’ll get.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard  rejected the 18-year-old Sumter County man’s request to change his plea after he was given 30 years in prison, telling him Friday that “you don’t get do-overs in the law.”

“A person can not be permitted to offer an open plea under oath, understanding he could receive the maximum sentence ... and then change his mind because he doesn’t like the result,” Howard said in issuing his decision.

Howard determined that Thornton entered his plea voluntarily and knowingly, as Assistant State Attorney Rich Buxman argued in court.

The judge even played a 30-minute audio recording of the court appearance where Thornton entered his plea to demonstrate that the full weight of the charges were carefully explained.

Defense attorney Rob Christensen argued that Thornton received bad legal advice from his previous lawyers. “We are not asking for leniency,” he said. “What we are asking for is the ability to start again.”

Christensen said after the ruling that they would appeal their case to a higher court.

The accident happened just before midnight Dec. 28, 2004. Thornton was speeding home to Oxford after visiting a girlfriend in Citrus when he skidded through a stop sign on a poorly lit road.

From Bauer Road he slid into State Road 44, colliding with a sport utility vehicle carrying Brandon Mushlit, 25 and his girlfriend Sara Jo Williams, 23. Neither wore seat belts and they were both thrown from the vehicle.

Thornton, who was 17 at the time of the crash, pleaded no contest, thinking the judge would sentence him to juvenile detention, a lesser sentence suggested by state officials and his attorney, former Assistant Public Defender Eric Evilsizer.

But with no agreement in place, punishment was left up to Howard, a judge who is known for issuing tough sentences. He gave him the maximum, 30 years for two charges of vehicular homicide.

The ruling sparked an outcry from the elected public defender as well as community and family members, who asked Howard to step aside from the case and claimed the white judge was prejudiced against the black defendant.

Many observers, including area NAACP officials, contrasted Thornton’s sentence against the case of Jennifer Porter, a white Pasco County woman sentenced to house arrest and community service after leaving the scene of an accident that left two black children dead.

The allegations and deep emotions stained the case, and Howard took time Friday to defend himself.

He blasted Assistant Public Defender Dale Merrill, who represented Thornton after Evilsizer left for private practice, for making the racial claims.

She compared the case to that of Richard Lee Buzby, 28, who was sentenced to one year in jail in 2004 after he pleaded guilty to killing two people in a 1999 car crash.

The judge named a number of differences in the Buzby case and rattled off a list of other cases that showed he determines punishments without regard to defendant’s skin color.

“Race didn’t have a thing to with anything,” Howard said strongly. “I think the differences between Buzby and Thornton are now apparent and I hope they are understood.”

Howard’s ire was not directed at Thornton or his defense attorney but it still hung over their case. “I certainly don’t think it helped,” Christensen said afterward.

Thornton’s mother, Lola, said Howard was predisposed against her son.

“I know how Judge Howard is, he already had his mind made up when he went in there,” she said. In 2003, her husband, Michael, received a 30-year prison sentence from the judge for allegedly stealing jewelry and gold coins in 2003.

She cried as Howard announced his decision and hugged her son before he returned to jail. “He told me to stop crying and keep praying,” she said.

Linda Mushlit, Brandon’s mother, also attended the court hearing. She said she was satisfied with the judge’s decision. It was fair, she said, but “it’ll never replace my son.”

John Frank can be reached at or 860-7312..


[Last modified July 28, 2006, 18:34:04]

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