Marla was sentenced to a 20-year mandatory prison term when she fired a warning shot to break up a fight. She appealed her case and ultimately served the remainder of a year in county jail. Compared to many people convicted under Florida’s 10-20-Life law, she was lucky.
Marla Swearingen is a 50-year-old mother and grandmother who suffers from multiple sclerosis. In 2009, she found herself in the middle of a developing altercation between her husband and her ex-husband, who lived across the street. According to Marla and other witnesses, she took a gun away from her husband as he was heading towards the confrontation. As the conflict escalated, Marla fired a warning shot into the air to try to stop a fight from breaking out.
No one was hurt, but Marla was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a firearm and personal possession and discharge. Prosecutors offered Marla a three year plea deal, but Marla opted to go to trial. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Marla had fired the gun toward her ex-husband, rather than straight up in the air. The jury convicted Marla of the charges, and the first-time offender faced an unthinkable 20 year mandatory minimum prison sentence.
Marla spent the next six months in jail, awaiting sentencing, as her physical and mental health deteriorated. She suffered a seizure her first day in jail and medical professionals warned that her MS would likely worsen with incarceration.
At sentencing, the judge was forced to give Marla the 20 year mandatory prison term required by Florida’s 10-20-Life gun law. Lamenting his lack of sentencing options, he said:
The Court is not given discretion regarding [this] sentence. If the Court did have discretion, there would be any number of reasons for…imposing a sentence substantially lower than the 20 year sentence that’s required by the statute, and I’ll list some of the reasons. The victim doesn’t want the defendant to go to jail… The defendant has absolutely no criminal history. The state had previously made an offer that was substantially less than the sentence that is required by the statute, and the defendant suffers from multiple sclerosis, and it’s entirely possible that further incarceration will adversely affect her physical condition.
The judge didn’t think Marla should spend two decades in prison. Marla’s ex-husband – the “victim” in the case – did not want Marla prosecuted, let alone sentenced to 20 years. Nevertheless, Florida’s 10-20-Life law left Marla’s judge with no option but to give the first-time offender 20 years in prison – with a $400,000 tab for taxpayers.
Marla appealed her case and, fortunately for her health, was permitted to remain out of prison, with an ankle monitor, pending appeal. A higher court, finding that Marla did not receive a fair trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct, reversed her conviction, remanding the case for a new trial. Rather than face another trial,
Marla accepted a plea agreement to lesser charges. She served the remainder of a year in county jail to be followed by two years of probation.
Compared to many people convicted under Florida’s inflexible 10-20-Life law, Marla was lucky. Read about Orville Lee Wollard and Erik Weyant, who are both serving 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentences.
The Facts: Marla Swearingen
Offense: Aggravated assault with a firearm, personal possession and discharge
Sentence: 20 years (resentenced on appeal)
Year sentenced: 2010