tampabay.com

Where's justice in Thornton case?

By GREG HAMILTON
Published July 30, 2006


Relying strictly on the rules of law, Circuit Judge Ric Howard on Friday denied William Thornton a chance at a fair and just sentence.

Rather than acknowledging that the law does not always take into account the vagaries of life, that it is a judge's duty to see that justice is done and not just that rules are followed, Howard said that the 30-year sentence that he imposed last year on the Wildwood teenager for his role in a double fatal accident will stand.

The law, Howard said, does not grant you a "do-over" if you do not like a sentence. There are legal standards set forth that define "manifest injustice," and Howard determined that Thornton's case failed the test. A belief that a sentence "does not seem fair" does not meet the standard, he explained in denying Thornton's request to withdraw his open plea to the court and possibly take the case to trial.

Those are the legal arguments, and they are sound.

But there are also moral arguments and standards of fairness, just as valid in life if not in a courtroom. These are the voices demanding justice, seeking a punishment in keeping with the facts of the case.

They, too, are solid. And they have been ignored.

How else can you reconcile such a black-and-white sentence in a case with so many areas of gray?

Thornton, then 17 and driving someone else's car at night on a poorly lit road, saw a stop sign too late, slammed on the brakes and skidded into an intersection, colliding with another vehicle in late December 2004.

The two people in the second vehicle, Brandon Mushlit and Sara Jo Williams, were not wearing seat belts and were ejected by the impact.

Thornton received a head injury rendering him unconscious for three days. Mushlit and Williams died of their injuries.

Thornton had no drugs or alcohol in his system. Mushlit, the driver of the other vehicle, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.112 percent, well above the limit of 0.08 at which a driver is presumed to be impaired.

Thornton sat in jail for months. Finally, in July 2005, his public defender, who had one foot out the door as he headed into private practice, showed up for their first meeting.

Based on his research, the lawyer advised Thornton that his only real option was to make an open plea to the court and not go to trial. That research consisted of reading the police report and driving past the accident scene on his way to the jail. No interviews, no depositions, no crime-scene analysis. Just a windshield survey and a wholesale acceptance of the prosecutor's case.

No doubt everyone, including Judge Howard, would be completely satisfied with the attorney's performance had he or she been in Thornton's shoes.

Did he follow the letter of the law? Yes. Did he fulfill his responsibility to vigorously defend his client? Not even close.

Thornton, a scared 17-year-old sitting in a jail cell, then made his monumental blunder: He trusted his attorney.

A church-going young man from Wildwood, a decent student earning money by washing rigs at a truck stop, Thornton had never been in trouble with the law. He would have been off had he been a thug.

Had he been more experienced in the criminal justice system, he would have known that he was getting a bum's rush. He would have known better than to give up his right to a trial. But his law-abiding ways betrayed him.

When his attorney told him that, yes, he could get up to 30 years in prison but that the state sentencing recommendations were for much lower juvenile sanctions, Thornton believed him.

When he went to court just a few weeks later, Thornton had a new attorney, a lawyer who had just arrived in Florida, a public defender who came upon his file as she was moving boxes in her new office.

She asked her predecessor about the case and was assured it was a done deal. This is how things are done in Florida and in this court. Despite misgivings, she, too, trusted him.

Thornton went to court expecting a version of the lower sentences that the state Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Corrections and even the Division of Forestry recommended. He signed the documents put in front of him. He respectfully answered the judge's questions, saying that he understood what was happening, figuring it was all a formality.

Then the ground opened up and swallowed him. Howard hit him with the max, 30 years in prison.

His first public defender, Eric Evilsizer, now shrugs and says that's a tough break, kid, but I did everything by the book.

The prosecutor says that the rules of the system were followed to the letter. All of the T's are crossed, the I's properly dotted.

The judge takes the unusual step of playing in court a recording of the conversations occurring during the sentencing to demonstrate that he followed all of the legal mandates.

The law backs them up. Fairness does not.

Clearly, a crime was committed and punishment is warranted. The victims' families demanded an eye for an eye, a feeling understandable after the loss of two young people. They want Thornton's life, and the judge has given it to them.

But there was no intent to do harm that night. Thornton's history shows he is no menace to society. The terrible events of that fateful night fit the textbook definition of an accident.

The judge and the lawyers can all convince themselves that they did the right thing because they followed the letter of the law. But they should know better.

Friday was a good day for legal scholars, but a horrific day for anyone seeking justice.