10-20-Life Law’s Flaw Turns Wrong People into Long-Term Prisoners

Post Date: September 28, 2013


Orville Lee Wollard with his family

(Tampa Bay Times Column by John Romano)

Meet Orville Wollard, hardened criminal.

A human resources specialist at Sea World, Wollard was having trouble with his teenage daughter’s boyfriend a few years back. The boyfriend had previously punched a hole in a wall and was now refusing to leave Wollard’s home.

Wollard got his gun and fired a single warning shot. Weeks later, the boyfriend called police, and Wollard was eventually convicted of aggravated assault.

He is now four years into a 20-year prison sentence.

Is this what Florida politicians had in mind when they put the 10-20-Life law in effect in 1999, creating mandatory sentences for anyone carrying or firing a gun during a crime?

“Legislators gripe and moan about activist judges. To me, mandatory minimums are the work of activist legislators,” said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. “Sentencing is supposed to be the job of the judiciary. That’s why we have judges. They’re supposed to have discretion.”

Meet Marissa Alexander, dangerous felon.

The Jacksonville woman said her 245-pound husband, who had previously been convicted on a domestic violence charge for attacking her, was approaching her in a threatening manner when she fired a single warning shot.

The mother of three was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and under the state’s 10-20-Life law the judge had to give her 20 years.

Alexander, who had never before been arrested, was granted a new trial Thursday after an appeals court ruled jurors had not been properly informed of the requirements to prove self-defense. She remains in prison, and prosecutors have indicated they will pursue another conviction. Alexander will once again face a 20-year sentence if found guilty.

After hearing about Alexander, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Lakeland, introduced a bill this year that would give judges the freedom to ignore mandatory sentences in specific circumstances.

The bill never made it out of committee.

“Any responsible person who actually reads Combee’s bill would say it’s a no-brainer. It’s just common-sense reform,” said Greg Newburn, the Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “You can see there is a huge gap between what 10-20-Life intended and the way it is being used.”

Meet Ronald Thompson, convicted gunman.

A retired Army vet in his 60s, Thompson was visiting an elderly woman near Gainesville a few years ago when her grandson and his friends showed up.

The grandson refused to leave when the woman asked, so Thompson retrieved a gun from his truck and fired two warning shots in the ground.

Thompson, a diabetic who is nearly blind and has had multiple heart surgeries, was sentenced to 20 years.

He was granted a new trial last year after it was determined jury instructions were flawed.

Prosecutors have not yet sought a new trial, but the possibility exists.

“There’s probably been some perfect laws written at some point in our history, but I’m not sure 10-20-Life is one of them,” Combee said. “We’re hoping that people understand there is an obvious need for clarification of this law.”

Combee filed another bill Thursday to clarify 10-20-Life.

Let’s hope Tallahassee is paying attention this time.