Court Watch: Two teens are headed to prison a year after the murder of Kevin Thornton
The grizzly assault along an Arkansas country road that killed 19-year-old Kevin Thornton of Juneau last year has forever changed the lives of four families.
Thornton’s family suffers daily. Two youth have been convicted of second degree murder, with their parents to visit their sons in prison. The third boy, convicted of a lesser charge, will be on probation for years.
KTOO has been following the case since reports of Thornton’s death last July reached Juneau. Reporter Steve Good has been our eyes and ears in Malvern as the case wound its way through the Arkansas court system.
With three plea agreements and sentencing complete, this sad story has come to a conclusion.
The trial for 17-year-old Clinton Ross, his buddies Timothy Norwood and Richard Whybark, both 18 years old, had been tentatively scheduled to begin today, (Wed., Aug.29).
The plea agreements negotiated last week eliminated the unknown of jury verdicts in separate trials and closed initial court proceedings in the case.
The teens’ statements made to sheriff’s officers after last July’s assault were accepted by the court as the factual basis for their guilty pleas. The boys were ages 16 and 17 then. They told officers they’d been drinking beer by the river that hot July day, then went driving around “looking for somebody, to kick their ass.” Two young guys walking down Traskwood Road were the victims. One got away; Kevin Thornton did not and died a week later of his injuries.
Reporter Steve Good has been to the scene, where a white cross with blue silk flowers is attached to a tree.
“When I was able to look at that scene, it really pointed home the fact that these kids had nowhere to run. They had nowhere to get away from any attack on them whatsoever, because of the topography of the land right there,” he said.
Two double locked gates – reminiscent of old cattle crossings – are directly beside and behind the cross, as well as a “barbed wire fence on each side of the road and a heavy tree line, and there was simply nowhere for them to go,” Good said.
On Aug. 22, the boys were sentenced as adults: Norwood and Whybark for the second-degree murder of Thornton, and Ross for aggravated assault for chasing, but not catching, Thornton’s friend, Jerry Haynes.
Ross, the youngest of the trio, will spend the next five years on probation. He had to pledge to stay alcohol and drug free, and will be randomly tested for drugs during his probation. He must have a job or attend school and stick to a number of other restrictions.
“He will be serving that time in the community. He will not have any electronic monitoring,” Good says. “Basically he will be treated as – although he’s 17 – any other adult probationer that they supervise.”
His sentence could have been six years in prison. In addition to five years’ probation, he was fined $1,000, $150 of court costs, and a $250 DNA collection fee.
“He will begin paying those fines in 30 days and if he gets in arrears, he can be sent to prison for the maximum amount of time his sentence could have called for,” Good said.
Norwood and Whybark will have to pay similar fines and fees when they are released from prison.
Ross had just finished 9th grade prior to last year’s assault and had been convicted of crimes as a juvenile, according to statements by his attorney in open court.
Whybark was a senior in high school last July and reported receiving school counseling for anger issues. Whybark had no previous run-ins with the law. Norwood had minor theft charges.
“It was stated in open court that he basically got in trouble after his father passed away a couple of years ago,” Good said.
Earlier this year during mental evaluations of all three boys, Ross and Whybark admitted to using alcohol to excess, especially on weekends. They reported consuming between 10 and 15 beers on the day of the assault. Under Arkansas law, self-induced intoxication is not a defense for failure to recognize one’s actions are culpable.
In the spring, Norwood and Whybark were released to their parents on $40,000 bond. The court also approved Ross’s release, but his family was unable to post the bond.
Throughout the case, Good said, Ross’s large family, including his mother, aunts, nieces and nephews, trooped into court for every hearing. Only his father did not attend, though he had accompanied his son to the sheriff’s office the day of his arrest last summer. Good said two toddlers were quite vocal at the sentencing of their 17-year-old uncle.
“It was kind of poignant, they couldn’t understand at any of these proceedings why they couldn’t run over and hug his neck,” he said.
Norwood was the second to be sentenced. He arrived with family members, including his mother and an uncle, who had attended all the hearings. Good said he looked directly at Judge Koon, then spoke in a clear, strong voice.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Norwood told the court. “All I can say is I’m sorry.”
Whybark was sentenced last. When asked if he wished to speak, he mumbled a comment that was inaudible to most of the courtroom.
“All I could catch of it of the 15 or 20 seconds that it lasted was ‘I’m truly sorry,’” Good reported.
Whybark’s father and stepmother also attended all the hearings. At his sentencing, his birth mother, who lives in another town, was in the courtroom for the first time since her son had been charged “and broke down into tears as he was being handcuffed and led off,” Good said. “She also was sobbing when the judge sentenced him to the 20-year term.”
Before the court worked out the terms of the plea agreements, three days had been set aside for the trial this week in Hot Spring County Circuit Court, before Judge Edward Koon.
If the agreement had not been reached, Good said it was clear the case would be dragged out for months due to several issues. The first goes back to Whybark’s arrest and interview by a Hot Spring County sheriff’s officer, where his stepmother was present and witnessed his statement. A motion before the court called to suppress the statement, because his stepmother had never legally adopted him.
“The position of the defense was the law was quite clear that she had no legal standing to do that, so therefore the evidence should be suppressed,” Good said. “If the judge had ruled against that, that would have formed at least one basis for an interlocutory appeal that would have had to go up and come down the appellate court system before the trial could have proceeded.”
Due to the plea agreements, Judge Koon never ruled on the suppression of evidence motions.
The Thornton family also was involved in plea negotiations. Good said Kevin Thornton’s father, Bill Thornton, signed the agreements just before last Wednesday’s proceedings began.
Kevin was a friend to everyone- that’s way he was raised and the way he lived his life. The stories that I have heard over the last year have been amazing about our son helping others; whether it be in school, at work, and just in life. Kevin was liked to all that knew him and met him. He would go out of his way to make those around him be happy and feel good about themselves. Kevin was funny, quick witted, and very talkative and loved to be active. He was creative with woodworking like his father and wanted to be a construction worker and build things. From an early age he had the curiosity to want to know how things worked and try to take apart and rebuild everything.
Kevin’s death has been devastating to our whole family. It has hit us all emotionally and financially, some of us physically. You have taken away the life of our son: the wedding that could have been, the grandchildren that we will never hold and the brother that his sister misses so strongly. Only in time will justice truly be served.
– Darlene Thornton, mother of Kevin ThorntonA reporter’s note: Arkansas does not allow cameras or recording in the court room. During the sentencing, Steve Good was allowed to audiotape – at a distance – the statement delivered to the youth by Darlene Thornton.
After sentencing, Whybark and Norwood were taken into custody in the courtroom, handcuffed and transported to the Hot Spring County jail for intake then they will be sent to a prison diagnostic unit. It will be a few weeks before they are moved to a prison facility. First, health evaluations must be done then psychological, vocational and educational tests. They will be assigned to the appropriate prison based on the level of the offense, security, and their work potential.
The 18-year-olds must serve at least 10 of their 20-year sentences before becoming eligible for parole. Their sentences could be reduced for good behavior and credit for time served this past year in a juvenile detention center.