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Arkansas teens change pleas, sentenced for killing Juneau teenager

Posted: August 26, 2012 - 12:11am

Three Arkansas defendants charged with killing a 19-year-old Juneau teenager, a recent Thunder Mountain High School graduate who was visiting family and friends last summer, entered into a plea deal and were sentenced in court this week.

Two of the teenage defendants, Richard Shelby Whybark, now 18, and Timothy Tyler Norwood, 18, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for attacking Kevin J. Thornton as he and a friend walked down a county road in Glen Rose, Ark., a small town about 45 miles southwest of Little Rock. Thornton died from his injuries a week later on July 27, 2011.

Whybark and Norwood each received a 20-year prison sentence, which was imposed by Arkansas 7th Circuit Court Judge Ed Koon Wednesday.

For the first time, the two — previously seen snickering in court, according to a local TV news report, and laughing when they learned of Thornton’s death, according to court documents that the defense tried to suppress — accepted responsibility and expressed remorse for Thornton’s death.

Whybark acknowledged he was pleading guilty because he was guilty, when asked by the judge why he was entering a guilty plea, according to the Malvern Daily Record, which has been covering the case.

For his part, Norwood remarked, “I didn’t mean for it to happen. All I can say is I’m sorry,” the Malvern Daily Record reported.

The third defendant, the youngest of the trio, Clinton Lavon Ross, 17, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, aggravated assault, a felony. He was sentenced to five years probation, plus six years in suspended jail time, which could be imposed if he violates the conditions of his release.

“I suggest you not test the terms of probation by violating them,” Koon warned, according to the Daily Record.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Richard Garrett told the Empire in a phone interview Friday that Ross received a reduced charge and a lighter sentence because Ross chased Thornton’s friend down the road while the other two beat up Thornton. The friend managed to escape.

“The third one had no involvement at all with the boy who died,” Garrett said.

Garrett said the state of Arkansas only offered the three defendants a plea deal after getting approval from Thornton’s parents, who live in Juneau. Garrett said he hosted a meeting at his office for them and other people involved in the case to explain what options were available going forward, including a possible plea deal instead of going to trial.

“They understood that what we were doing would keep them from going through this a second time,” Garret said. “ ... and they agreed with us that we should offer them a 20-year plea, which we did.”

Garrett further explained offering a plea deal guaranteed a lengthy prison sentence, which could not be promised if the case had gone to trial before a jury.

“I can’t predict what would have happened if we would have taken it to trial,” he said. “I feel certain the boys would have been convicted, (but) as to what the sentence would have been, it’s impossible to say. To start with, these were both young boys — they were practically juveniles when we charged them. One of them had absolutely no record — I mean no record at all — and the other had a minor record. So when you take into the account of the youth of the perpetrators, and their lack of criminal history and that they did show some remorse about what they did, then who knows what the jury would have done? We felt, based on a range from five to 30 that they could have gave them, that 20 years was towards the upper end of that range and was probably as much or more than what we would have gotten if we tried them.”

Thornton’s mother, Darlene Thornton, spoke at Wednesday’s hearing after the pleas were entered and sentences imposed. She read aloud an impact statement she prepared, which tried to put into words her sense of loss — an impossible task, she noted.

“Kevin’s death has been devastating to our whole family,” she read. “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 (is) missing so strongly. Only in time will justice truly be served.”

Before Norwood and Whybark were taken into custody by Hot Spring County Sheriff’s Department after the hearing, the judge called it “a tragic day.”

“Think about the life that is no longer there,” Koon told the defendants. “He has family and they are suffering because of your actions.”

Prosecutors had called it a violent, senseless, unprovoked attack, and a motive was never established. Charging documents allege that the three teenagers, plus a then 14-year-old boy, were drinking down near a river and then were driving a white truck when they happened along Thornton and his friend walking on Traskwood Road between Glen Rose Church and Highway 67.

They stopped the truck and beat Thornton unconscious and left him in a ditch. A passerby found him and carried him to a nearby church. He died seven days later at Baptist Health Medical Center.

Charges against the 14-year-old were previously dropped since he apparently never left the truck, prosecutors said. The remaining three were charged with second-degree murder, a class ‘A’ felony.

Arkansas does have the death penalty for capital murder, which this was not, Garrett said in an interview.

“What they did would not come anywhere close to approaching that,” Garrett said.

He explained that the state would have to prove that the teenagers intended to kill Thornton to be charged with that crime.

“I don’t believe these boys had any intentions of killing anybody,” Garrett said. “It’s just — it was an unfortunate circumstance that it happened like it did. I think he was struck intentionally, and I think that because of him being struck that he suffered and died, and from that you can say that they purposefully killed him. But as far as intentionally killing him, I don’t think that ever crossed their minds.”

Koon ruled last month the three defendants should be charged as adults, given the nature of the offense. Whybark was 17, and Norwood and Ross were 16, when they were charged. The judge also ruled last month to try to cases individually instead of as a group.

Whybark was represented by defense attorney Phyllis Lemons; Norwood, Gregory Crain; and Ross, Philip Wilson.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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