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Two despairing mothers, two views of justice

Published July 28, 2006

They have spoken to each other only on the Times' editorial page - in letters to the editor - and from the witness stand in an Inverness courtroom.

But Linda Mushlit and Lola Thornton have never made eye contact - not even Wednesday as they sat only a few feet apart.

Linda's son, Brandon, and his girlfriend were killed in a car crash on Dec. 28, 2004.

For his role in that tragedy, Lola's son, William Thornton IV, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the maximum.

Willie, as they called him in court Wednesday, thought he would get far less time for the accident. Circuit Judge Ric Howard threw the book at him.

Given the harshness of his sentence, Willie is trying to withdraw his guilty plea. Lola hopes her son gets something resembling justice. Linda wants him to serve a very long time in prison.

They are mothers united by grief and separated by anger. Judge Howard promised to announce his decision at 2 p.m. today. Only one mother will walk away satisfied.

In an ice cold courtroom Wednesday, the chill between the two families was obvious. Linda and her husband, Frank, sat in the front row next to three others. They stared straight ahead.

Lola sat behind her son, whose head bears a scar from that terrible accident. She dabbed her bloodshot eyes with a white handkerchief. She turned 48 on Wednesday. Some celebration.

She said she feels for the other families but that the punishment doesn't fit. She'd like to reach out.

For now, that isn't possible.

"People shouldn't be so hateful," she said after the hearing.

She wept at testimony suggesting that Willie's first attorney from the Public Defender's Office put little effort into the case. His idea of research was to drive by the scene of the accident on his way to visit Willie in jail.

That didn't change Linda Mushlit's mind.

"He took two lives. He deserves to lose his," she told me as she stood outside the courtroom during a brief break in the hearing. "They had their whole lives ahead of them."

Thornton was a 17-year-old inexperienced, unlicensed driver on a badly lit road. He tried to stop but skidded through the stop sign into the path of the other vehicle. Previous testimony from the Highway Patrol - which Judge Howard relied on during the sentencing - had him going 53 mph. Turns out he was going 33 in a 30 zone.

Brandon Mushlit and Sara Jo Williams weren't wearing seat belts. Both were thrown from their car. Mushlit was driving under the influence. Sara Jo had drugs in her system.

Hard stuff for families to hear.

"My son didn't cause it; my son was going below the speed limit," Linda said.

She attended every hearing. She saw Willie and his family in court. The other mother, Sara Jo's, has kept a lower profile, although she too was in the courtroom Wednesday.

"No one ever came to talk to us," Linda said. She even called the hospital in Tampa where Willie lay unconscious for three days. But she heard no words of condolence from the Thorntons, she said. No sympathy, no apology.

"He didn't show any remorse for what he did," Linda said. "He took two lives. He can only give one."

She thinks he deserves his punishment.

Lola can only hope that Judge Howard doesn't agree.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

[Last modified July 28, 2006, 06:55:15]

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