Sentencing Reform is Needed After Another Disturbing Case Reveals Flaw in State’s Mandatory Gun Law
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Date: June 5, 2012
Contact: Monica Pratt Raffanel, email@example.com or Greg Newburn, firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, FL – FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn called on Governor Rick Scott’s “Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection” to include Florida’s “10-20-Life” gun sentencing law in their review, pointing to an extraordinary new case as evidence of the need for reform. The Task Force, which was created by the governor to review Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, is scheduled to meet next on June 12 in Sanford, FL.
“If the 10-20-Life gun law is not reformed, the right to of law-abiding Floridians to practice self-defense will be chilled by the threat of decades in prison. That’s why we believe no review of Stand Your Ground will be complete without a hard look at 10-20-Life,” Newburn said.
Newburn pointed to the particularly disturbing case of Ronald Thompson as evidence for the need for reform of 10-20-Life. Thompson is a fully disabled veteran with 14 years of service in the U.S. Army. After leaving the military, Thompson accumulated more than 5,000 hours volunteering at the Lake City VA hospital and as a Deputy Representative of AMVETS.
In September 2009, Thompson was visiting an elderly friend in Keystone Heights, FL when the friend’s 17-year-old grandson and his friends came home and demanded entry into the family home. Acting at the direction of the boy’s mother, Thompson’s friend told the boy he was not permitted to enter. Her refusal prompted an angry outburst by the 17-year-old. Fearing that his friend was being threatened, Thompson, a lawful gun owner, fired two warning shots into the ground to scare away the boy, who left. The judge presiding over the case concluded that neither shot was intended to hit the boy.
Despite the fact that no one was injured, Thompson was charged with four counts of aggravated assault by State Attorney Angela Corey. Ms. Corey recently prosecuted Marissa Alexander in another controversial case that triggered Florida’s mandatory gun sentencing law. Like Ms. Alexander, Mr. Thompson rejected a plea offer of three years; he believed he was legally entitled to protect his friend from physical danger. In both cases, Stand Your Ground defenses were denied - in Ms. Alexander’s case by a judge, in Mr. Thompson’s by the jury.
After Mr. Thompson was found guilty, his sentencing judge, Judge John Skinner, refused to impose the 20-year mandatory prison sentence called for by the 10-20-Life law, declaring the sentence “a crime in itself” and unconstitutional under Florida’s Constitution. Ms. Corey’s office appealed the sentence, and an appellate court imposed the 20-year mandatory minimum.
Mr. Thompson’s poor health has worsened since he began his two-decade prison sentence. According to Virginia Caldwell, Mr. Thompson’s sister, he has diabetes and high blood pressure, and has had a heart attack. He has also had prostate surgery and two surgeries to remove tumors from his face. Further, Thompson is nearly blind and walks with a cane. Ms. Caldwell says that while most of his health problems were under control before he went to prison, today “he looks like a holocaust victim.” Though Mr. Thompson is not due to be released from prison for 17 years, Ms. Caldwell told FAMM that she does not expect Thompson to live another six months. Mr. Thompson’s wife passed away last year.
“Ronald Thompson acted negligently, and a jury concluded that he violated the letter of the law. But sending him to prison for 20 years - despite his decades of service to his country and community and despite the fact that no one was hurt - is a shocking travesty of justice,” said Newburn. “What former state senator Victor Crist, the author of the 10-20-Life law said about Ms. Alexander’s case applies here: this is not the type of case the law was meant to cover. In fact, the great irony of 10-20-Life is that people who think they're innocent of the crime take their chances at trial, and they get the really harsh prison sentences. People who know they are guilty take a plea deal and get out much earlier. So the law certainly isn't working the way it was intended.”
Newburn said that he only learned of Mr. Thompson’s case after FAMM brought national attention to the case of Marissa Alexander. Mr. Thompson’s sentence is just the latest in a series of excessive, mandatory sentences imposed on individuals who sincerely believed they were acting in self-defense. Over the past few years, FAMM has highlighted the cases of:
- Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three who was sentenced last month to 20 years for firing a gun in her home to frighten away her abusive husband;
- Orville Lee Wollard, a SeaWorld employee and father of two who in 2009 was sentenced to 20 years after firing a gun into a wall of his home to stop his daughter’s boyfriend from further abusing her; and
- Erik Weyant, a 22-year-old man who fired shots into the air after being surrounded by a group of angry men outside a bar. Weyant was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2007.
“Reasonable people can disagree about whether a given act is self-defense,” Newburn said. “Under Stand Your Ground, a judge gets to take into consideration all the facts and circumstances of a case, then decide whether Stand Your Ground applies. However, if a judge rules against a defendant, and the defendant is convicted, the sentencing judge doesn’t get to consider any of the facts and circumstances of the case when imposing the sentence.
“Florida’s courts are not being allowed to impose appropriate sentences. The judges who sentenced Thompson, Alexander, Wollard, and Weyant all stated that their hands were tied by the 10-20-Life gun law, and three of the judges made clear they would have given shorter sentences had they been allowed to take into account the mitigating circumstances of the crimes. Unfortunately, the judges’ total lack of discretion leads to massive injustices - injustices like a battered spouse, a protective father, and a disabled vet all being sentenced to 20 years in prison despite hurting no one,” Newburn concluded.
Ronald Thompson’s motion for a new trial will be heard on June 13 in Clay County, a day after the Governor’s Task Force is scheduled to meet. For more information on Mr. Thompson’s case, Florida’s 10-20-Life law, or any of the cases highlighted above, please check out FAMM’s website, www.famm.org, or contact FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn at email@example.com.
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