In June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual's right to possess a firearm "and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." Quoting the famous British jurist William Blackstone, the court held that "the right of self-preservation" permits a citizen to "repe[l] force by force" when "the intervention of society in his behalf, may be too late to prevent an injury." This grandiose language must ring awfully hollow to Orville Lee Wollard who, two years ago tomorrow was sentenced to two decades in a Florida prison for protecting his family with a firearm.
On a spring morning in 2008, Wollard got a panicked call from his wife. The teenage boyfriend who had been beating up his 15-year old daughter was back at their house causing trouble. Wollard rushed home and found the boy on the porch and his daughter with a black eye. Wollard told the boy to leave, but instead, the boy attacked him, ripping out stitches from Wollard's recent surgery, and then ran off with Wollard's daughter. When the two returned several hours later, the boyfriend began shoving Orville's daughter around the Wollards' home. Wollard's wife and eldest daughter screamed for him to do something.
Wollard was frightened for his daughter's and his family's safety. He grabbed his legally registered pistol and confronted the boy, again asking him to leave. The boy stopped assaulting Wollard's daughter. He smiled, punched a hole in the wall, and began moving toward Wollard. Wollard, who had had firearms training as a former member of the auxiliary police force, aimed a bullet into the wall next to the boyfriend to scare him. No one was hurt, and the boy finally left.
That is where this story should have ended, but it didn't. Several weeks later, the abusive boy called the police to report Wollard for aggravated assault, and Wollard was arrested.
Orville Wollard did not think he had committed a crime by protecting his family. He rejected a plea deal that would have given him probation and a felony record and instead took his case to court. Prosecutors charged Wollard with various crimes, including shooting into a dwelling (his own house), child abuse (because the boy was under 18) and aggravated assault with a weapon. A jury convicted Wollard of possessing and discharging a firearm, which triggered Florida's mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated assault with a weapon. Wollard was sentenced to the mandatory prison term of 20 years without parole. At sentencing, the judge said, "This [sentence] is obviously excessive ... if it weren't for the mandatory minimum ... I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of the event." For his part, Wollard told the court, "I'm amazed. I'm stunned. I have spent my life pursuing education [and] helped the community. [T]hen one day this person breaks into my house ... he continues to do this, he assaults my daughter, he threatens me, I protect myself. [N]o one is injured in this whole thing, and I'm going to prison. ... And again, with all respect to [the court], I would expect this from the former Soviet Union, not the United States."
Wollard is right. If what he did was so clearly illegal, what did the Supreme Court's ruling mean? If not to protect one's young child within the home, what are guns for?
To be clear, a jury found Wollard guilty. Jurors apparently did not believe he acted in self-defense. They might have voted differently if Wollard's attorneys had been permitted to tell them about the boy's previous violent attacks.
Whether this jury reached the correct conclusion is open to debate. Whether prosecutors should have charged a crime that carried such a harsh mandatory minimum sentence bears scrutiny. What is beyond debate is that when judges are prevented from applying sentences that are appropriate to the unique circumstances of each case, injustice is inevitable. And when the constitutional right to bear arms is at stake, violations of the bedrock tenet of American justice - that the punishment should fit the crime and the offender - are all the more intolerable.
Julie Stewart is president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
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