State Politics

Gov. Rick Scott denies inmate’s plea for mercy in ‘warning shot’ case

Florida Governor Rick Scott during a press conference at the Port of Miami on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015.
Florida Governor Rick Scott during a press conference at the Port of Miami on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

Orville “Lee” Wollard fired a single warning shot in self-defense that hurt no one but sent him to prison for 20 years, and on Wednesday Gov. Rick Scott rejected Wollard’s plea to get out early.

At a clemency board hearing, Scott quickly denied Wollard’s request that he be set free after serving about seven years in prison, even though Scott last year signed a law expanding Florida’s “stand your ground” protections that was inspired in part by Wollard’s case.

Scott’s decision came after the prosecutor in the case, State Attorney Jerry Hill, said Wollard has “a history of bad decisions” that should keep him behind bars, including past drug use.

Hill did not mention that he had offered Wollard a compromise before the case went to trial in 2008: a plea deal of five years’ probation.

Wollard rejected it, rolled the dice on a jury trial — and lost.

Wollard, now 60, was a first-time offender with a master’s degree and a job as a human resources specialist at Sea World. The Department of Corrections said Wednesday he has a perfect disciplinary record at Apalachee Correctional Institution west of Tallahassee.

His case has become a national crusade for advocates seeking to abolish mandatory sentencing laws in which judges can’t use discretion. Under Florida’s 10-20-Life law — a key part of Jeb Bush’s successful 1998 campaign for governor — a conviction for aggravated assault with a gun came with a minimum 20 years in prison. No exceptions.

The Florida Legislature last year rewrote the self-defense law in part because of Wollard’s case, in which he fired a gunshot into a wall of his Polk County home because his teenage daughter’s boyfriend was making threats. Scott signed the bill, which requires a judge to take into account “the totality of the circumstances involved in the offense.”

State law now says a person can’t be charged with a crime for firing a warning shot after feeling threatened. The law was not retroactive, so it doesn’t apply to Wollard’s case.

The change in state law was inspired largely by the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman also sentenced to 20 years for firing a weapon during a domestic dispute. But the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said Wednesday Wollard’s case also was a factor.

Combee said prosecutor Hill, whom he called “a friend,” owes the public an explanation of why he believes Wollard should stay in prison when he offered Wollard five years’ probation with no prison time.

“It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me or anybody else,” Combee said. “He obviously made a mistake.”

Wollard’s case became a national sensation that was reported by CBS News and the New York Times. The National Center for Due Process has a “Free Orville Wollard” Facebook page and a nationwide advocacy group, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) has championed his cause.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” said Greg Newburn, FAMM’s Florida policy director. “Lee Wollard deserved to be sentenced according to his conduct and his individual character, after a trial.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Wollard’s lawyer, Thomas Means of Washington, D.C., said of Wollard: “He shouldn’t have to serve another day, much less 13 more years, for trying to defend his home, himself and his family from what he perceived as an imminent physical threat of force.”

Police reports said the daughter’s boyfriend tore stitches from Wollard’s abdomen during their altercation.

Prosecutor Hill showed Scott and Cabinet members enlarged pictures of the bullet hole in the wall of Wollard’s home. He said the incident between Wollard and the boyfriend was “all but over with, and he rips off a shot” that came within a few inches of killing the youth.

“With one twitch, one slight movement of that handgun, we’d have been looking at a murder charge, not basically an unlawful discharge inside the house,” Hill said. “There was no reason to fire that shot.”

The Florida Commission on Offender Review recommended that Wollard’s petition be denied, but clemency proceedings are mostly secret and the report is not a public record under Florida law.

“The clemency board has information that nobody else has access to,” Newburn said.

Clemency rules require Scott to be on the prevailing side in a vote, so his opposition brought Wollard’s case to an end with no further discussion by the three elected Cabinet members who also make up the clemency board.

“I’m stunned and disappointed. I’m shocked,” said Wollard’s wife, Sandy, who wiped away tears as her attorney led her to a Capitol elevator.

Wollard is eligible for release from prison on July 13, 2028.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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