- - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A lot of attention has been paid to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and far too little to the state’s extreme gun sentencing laws. Less than a year ago, I told readers of this page about the outrageous case of Orville Lee Wollard, a lawful gun owner who fired a warning shot in his home to chase off a young man who had been abusing his teenage daughter. Wollard believed he had the right to protect his family so he rejected a plea offer. Unfortunately, a jury rejected Wollard’s self-defense claim and found him guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill. A Florida judge was forced by the state’s mandatory gun sentencing law to send Wollard to prison for 20 years.

Particularly galling was the fact that just two weeks after Wollard was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court in Heller v. District of Columbia affirmed the right of Americans to have a firearm “and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The ruling was cold comfort for the Wollard family.

Just when it seemed that Florida’s inflexible gun sentencing laws couldn’t produce a worse result, I learned last week of an upcoming sentencing in Florida that exceeds Wollard’s for sheer stupidity and rank injustice.

On Aug. 1, 2010, Marissa Alexander pointed her lawfully registered handgun into the ceiling and told her husband to leave the house. Ms. Alexander’s husband had just roughed her up and was threatening to kill her. She had every reason to believe he might make good on his threat. He had physically abused her in the past, one time sending her to the hospital.

On that August afternoon, however, Ms. Alexander’s husband violated a restraining order against him and came into her house, where he discovered what he considered suspicious text messages on her phone. He flew into a rage and allegedly choked her and refused to let her leave the house, where her two stepsons were also present. After breaking free and making her way to the garage, Ms. Alexander realized she did not have her car keys, and couldn’t leave the house.

Ms. Alexander grabbed her handgun and re-entered her home to retrieve her keys. Her husband continued to threaten her and refused to leave despite her repeated requests. Finally, Ms. Alexander fired one shot from her handgun into the ceiling and her husband left. Ms. Alexander’s husband told investigators in a deposition that she never pointed the gun at him or her stepsons and that she probably fired the warning shot because, “I honestly think she just didn’t want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn’t get hurt.”

Ms. Alexander’s husband later changed his story and said he feared that his wife was going to fatally shoot him right then and there. Ms. Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault (one count related to her husband, and two more for her stepsons). Confident of her innocence, she rejected a plea bargain and went to trial. In a quick verdict that stunned those in the courtroom, the jury found Ms. Alexander guilty.

It’s not my place to second-guess their decision. Perhaps Ms. Alexander’s actions, like Wollard’s, technically satisfied the elements for assault with a deadly weapon as soon as she fired her gun. But the jury did not know that she faced a mandatory 20-year sentence. Perhaps if they did, they would have felt like the judge who sentenced Wollard, who 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.”

Ms. Alexander’s judge will have no discretion, either. Barring something extraordinary, Ms. Alexander will spend the next two decades in state prison, despite hurting no one. Florida’s 10-20-Life gun law, however well intentioned, must be reformed to give judges more discretion in cases like Ms. Alexander’s and Wollard’s. Otherwise, the right of lawful, gun-owning individuals to protect themselves and their families from physical harm in their homes will be extinguished.

Julie Stewart is founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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