A unanimous Florida Senate on Thursday removed the crime of aggravated assault from the list of gun-related crimes that require a mandatory 20-year prison sentence under a law known as 10-20-Life.
The 38-0 vote reflects a growing belief by political leaders in both parties that inflexible minimum mandatory sentencing laws can produce arbitrary and unjust penalties. It’s a philosophical evolution by a tough-on-crime Republican Legislature that passed 10-20-Life nearly two decades ago during an epidemic of gun-related crimes across the state.
The new legislation is supported by prosecutors and public defenders and has breezed through three House committees without a dissenting vote. It could reach Gov. Rick Scott’s desk before the current legislative session ends.
The bill (SB 228), sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, was inspired by a series of several high-profile cases in which people have been sentenced to 20-year terms for firing “warning shots” in which no one was injured.
“Too many times, you have somebody who has made the decision to go to trial because they have a genuinely held belief that they were acting in self-defense,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor. “They felt like they had a good defense, and then a jury convicted them, and at that point, the judge’s hands are tied.”
That’s precisely what happened in a case in which a Polk County man received a 20-year sentence for firing a shot into the living room wall of his home in an attempt to scare off his teenage daughter’s boyfriend, who had fought with and struck the daughter, according to court testimony.
Orville Lee Wollard III claimed he was protecting his wife and daughters, and not trying to hurt the boyfriend. After he fired the shot in 2008, the Polk County prosecutor’s office offered him five years’ probation if he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.
He rejected the offer, demanded a trial and a jury convicted him. The judge had no say over the 20-year sentence and Florida’s self-defense law did not apply because the boyfriend was in the Wollard home legally.
Wollard, 60, had no prior felony convictions. He petitioned the state for release last September, but Gov. Scott denied the request. He will be eligible for release in 2028, when he will be 73 years old.
The bill that passed the Senate Thursday would not apply to Wollard because it’s not retroactive.
A review of 10-20-Life was recommended by a statewide task force Scott created in 2013 in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The task force urged the Legislature to “eliminate any unintended consequences” under the 10-20-Life law.