John Thurman

Former Circuit Court Judge John Thurman died Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

It was May 1991 and Circuit Court Judge John Thurman was about to do something against his beliefs.

Home in Dunnellon with his wife, Karen, Thurman worked to prepare a court order that would send convicted murderer John Barrett to the electric chair.

“We were in the house and he was writing up the order, and all of a sudden he got up and he handed it to me,” Karen Thurman said Friday. “I read it, and it was an order to put the gentleman to death. John did not believe in the death penalty but he knew it was the law. I knew that was burning a hole in him.”

Judge Thurman, who presided over Citrus County felony criminal court cases for 12 years in the 1980s and ‘90s, died Wednesday, July 8, 2020, at home with family at his side, his wife said. He was 73.

Thurman was an assistant public defender when he decided in 1984 to run for circuit court judge. He won and served until being defeated for re-election in 1996.

From there, Thurman served three, four-year terms as a state workers’ compensation administrative judge, appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and twice reappointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

But it was his time on the bench in Citrus County, while his Karen was serving in the state Senate, and then the U.S. House of Representatives, that struck a chord with Thurman.

“John always felt like there needed to be more people on the defense side sitting on the bench,” Karen Thurman said. “That was his outlook toward the law: Everybody was equal and had the right to be proven guilty or innocent.”

The Floral City murders case was his most notorious.

A jury in 1991 convicted Barrett of first-degree murder in the deaths of four men in a botched murder-for-hire scheme in a house just north of the Hernando County line a year earlier. Two other men were also convicted in the case.

At sentencing, the jury recommended life in prison for Barrett. Thurman, while ideologically opposed to the death penalty, thought Barrett nonetheless deserved the ultimate punishment.

Ironically, the Florida Supreme Court overturned Barrett’s conviction and sentence. On retrial before a different judge, Barrett was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison for life.

The Thurmans were power couples in the political sense, but John stayed out of his wife’s shadows as she parlayed a 5-vote win on the Dunnellon City Council to eventual stints in the state Senate and Congress.

“When I ran for city council, he said ‘you need to get out and talk to people,’” she said. “Every night when I came home from work he asked how many people I talked to that day.”

Thurman also had health issues. He was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1988 and began dialysis, even taking treatments in the courthouse while at work, before receiving a transplant in 1996.

“He never missed a beat,” Karen Thurman said.

Thurman didn’t let his 1996 re-election loss to Michael Blackstone deter him.

“John never looked back,” she said. “He was one of those, ‘it’s over, let’s move on, what’s next?’”

Family was vital to Thurman. Along with his wife of 47 years, the Thurmans have two children and three grandchildren.

“His family was his driving force,” Karen Thurman said. “Our family meant everything to us. We were out in the public eye, so when we had our time, that was very important.”

Karen Thurman said they were true partners.

“If you think of the life we led, he was there every step of the way,” she said. “He was a man who could wear pink. He was very comfortable who he was.”

Viewing will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, July 16, at the Chas. E. Davis Funeral Home in Inverness. Because of the COVID-19 precautions, there will be no services, Karen Thurman said. Her husband will be buried with his parents and stilborn sister in Kissimmee.

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.