During day five of the federal trial for the wrongful death of Andrew Joseph III, lawyers representing Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) objected to part of a testimony from a close friend of Joseph's.
The defense team for HCSO didn’t want Corey Thornton to testify that a deputy told the children that they should cross Interstate 4 to find their ride home after he and
Joseph were ejected from the Florida State Fair on Feb. 7, 2014.
Lawyers for HCSO argued that a portion of Thornton's testimony would be hearsay, but Judge Mary Scriven denied the defense team’s attempt to block it from the jury.
During questioning from Joseph family attorney Todd Norbraten, Thornton explained that they were ejected out of Gate 4 by HCSO. To get back, the boys had to make their way to the other side of the fair. The children wanted to cross through the fair to make it to the pickup spot for their ride home, at Gate 3.
The kids approached an unnamed HCSO deputy and asked if he could escort them through the fair. Thornton said the deputy told the children that they were trespassed from the fair and they’d be arrested if they tried to enter. The deputy then told them he could technically arrest them just for being there.
He then told the boys that their gate was on the other side of I-4, even though it wasn’t.
“He [the deputy] said that the only thing separating us from this gate and the other gate was the interstate,” Thornton told the court.
Joseph was just 14-years when he died after being struck by an SUV on I-4 that night while trying to find his way home. There is no evidence that either of the boys committed a crime that night, but still they were taken into HCSO custody and ejected from the fair.
Thornton, now 21, was only 12 years old at the time. He told the court he was allowed to go with Joseph to the fair because Joseph was like an older brother to him. He had borrowed Joseph’s yellow jacket with an M&M's logo on it to stay warm. The children were together the whole night until Joseph’s death.
After being denied re-entry or an escort through the fair, the boys instead tried to find their way to the gate based on what the officer told them. They crossed under the interstate bridge on Orient Road, walked through Hard Rock Casino property, then found their way onto the interstate through the fence on the casino property and crossed I-4.
On the side of I-4 closest to the fair, Thornton said they both realized there was a barbed wire fence separating them from getting back to where their ride had dropped them off.
Joseph decided they should retrace their steps and cross the interstate again to head back toward where they were ejected.
“He told me we were going to go back,” Thornton said, as his voice began quivering. “He didn’t make it back.”
He broke down in tears on the stand and said, “I can’t do this, man.”
Judge Scriven called a recess to give Thornton time to recollect himself. The courtroom was packed with supporters of the Joseph family, and many of them started crying, too.
When Thornton returned to the stand five minutes later, he was asked if he had seen what happened to Joseph when he was struck by the SUV. “Yes sir,” he said.
He explained that after Joseph was struck, he had made his way back to his ride on his own. When his ride asked where Joseph was, Thornton was in a state of shock and said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
The person who picked up Thornton circled the fair and looked for Joseph, but couldn’t find him, unaware until later of what had happened.
On the stand, Thornton said that it was former HCSO Corporal Mark Clark who initially took the kids into custody earlier that night and called for their ejection. Clark detaining Joseph is a fact that HCSO defense has tried to call into question all week. But a pretrial stipulation, or agreement, shows that lawyers for both sides agreed that Clark did indeed detain him.
Thornton also told the court about the moment they both “got grabbed” by Clark at the fair.
He had followed behind Joseph as the teenager picked a friend’s hat up off the ground. That friend of Joseph’s had already been detained by HCSO officers, along with a couple of others. Joseph knew the kids from football, and asked where the deputies were taking them.
“He [Joseph] got grabbed, then I look behind me, and I’m getting grabbed by Officer Clark,” he said.
Thornton remembered Joseph telling him, “Don’t resist, we didn’t do nothing wrong.”
Thornton added that when he and Joseph were taken to the HCSO holding area that night, he was told he had to lift his shirt so deputies could inspect him for gang tattoos. He said deputies threatened to taze him if he didn’t comply.
Joseph and Thornton were then put in a HCSO van and ejected from the fair. A deputy left the boys to fend for themselves in the dark as it started raining.
During cross examination, HCSO lawyers asked Thornton if he could identify the deputy who allegedly advised them they had to cross I-4 to get to their gate—despite the fact that under Florida State Uniform Traffic Control Act it is illegal for pedestrians to walk on interstates.
Thornton said the deputy had a badge and was wearing the same uniform as other officers at the fair, but that he couldn’t remember the name.
He was also asked why the boys decided to turn around and try to cross over the interstate the second time. Thornton said that Joseph had received a call which he thought was from their ride. But he wasn’t sure what Joseph said on the call.
Since the trial started earlier this week, Hillsborough Deputies have been caught telling conflicting stories, and Judge Scriven scolded the HCSO defense, telling the lawyers, “You can’t manufacture facts.” One of the commanding officers involved taht night also said that individual deputies should be able to interpret state laws at their own discretion.
A law enforcement expert told the court that HCSO violated the Constitution and State Law by taking the children into custody with no evidence of a crime and failing to contact their parents.
The trial continues on Monday, Sept. 19.