Thornton to testify against Gonzalez

As I reported yesterday, Frederick Thornton, Jr., age 19, has agreed to testify against Patrick Gonzalez and the others involved in the murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Wearing a bright fluorescent green jumpsuit with “Esc. Co. Jail” stamped on the back, the slight Thornton stood this morning with his attorney Cheryl Alverson in front of Judge Nickolas Geeker. In exchange for his willingness to testify against Gonzalez and the others, Thornton’s charges were lowered to second degree murder and he will no longer face the death penalty. However, he still may be sentenced with life in prison.

Geeker spent considerable time questioning Thornton to be sure he understood the plea agreement – which had him plea no contest to two counts of second degree murder and no contest to the home invasion/robbery.

The judge asked the teenager from Okaloosa County if he had read the plea agreement, did he understand it fully and did he understand that he was giving up many of his rights, including his right to a trial and the right to appeal. Thornton answered each question softly, but firmly, “Yes, sir.”

Judge Geeker accepted the pleas and ordered that a pre-sentence report be returned to him by May 12. Geeker will not set Thornton’s sentence until after the trials of Gonzalez and the others. Alverson and the State Attorney’s Office will both make recommendations to Geeker before sentence is imposed

In the first row behind Thornton sat Ashley and Blue Markham, their attorney Robert Beasley and several friends and family members. At an impromptu press conference outside the courtroom after the hearing, State Attorney Bill Eddins said that he had discussed the plea agreement with the family and “laid out the overall circumstances.” The family was in complete agreement with his decision, according to Eddins.

“I wouldn’t have taken this position without family agreement,” said Eddins.

The state attorney said that he had approached Thornton with a plea offer because “Mr. Thornton, when initially approached, immediately confessed willingly.”

“I believe Mr. Thornton will be helpful in laying out in clear detail what happened inside the Billings’ residence,” said Eddins. “We have a person (in Thornton) that knows what happened.”

Eddins said his office is still evaluating the case and taking depositions. His focus is on Patrick Gonzalez, who has been identified as the killer and mastermind of the crime.

When asked about the possible arrests of others, such as Cab Tice or Hugh Wiggins, Eddins replied, “We are continuing to assess all aspects of the evidence. From my standpoint, I see no imminent arrests.”