By Lucian E. Dervan
The House Judiciary Committee introduced five bills this year in a bipartisan effort to reform America’s criminal-justice system. With incarceration rates in the U.S. five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and other democracies, the bills aim to provide sensible reforms such as rewriting mandatory-sentencing statutes. Yet none directly addresses plea bargaining, a practice that induces too many defendants to plead guilty to avoid what has come to be known as the trial penalty.
Consider the case of Orville Lee Wollard. The 60-year-old Floridian is serving a 20-year prison sentence for using his legally owned weapon in his own home to fire a warning shot into the wall next to his daughter’s boyfriend. The warning shot came at the end of a day in 2008 during which the boyfriend allegedly attacked Mr. Wollard, assaulted his daughter, and refused to leave Mr. Wollard’s home. No one was injured.
Believing his actions justifiable self-defense, Mr. Wollard rejected a plea bargain of five years probation, choosing instead to exercise his constitutional right to a trial and present his case to a jury. Unfortunately, the court didn’t permit him to admit extensive evidence regarding the boyfriend’s alleged abuse. After hearing the limited evidence, the jury convicted Mr. Wollard of aggravated assault with a firearm, resulting in a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. In September, Florida Gov. Rick Scott denied Mr. Wollard’s request for clemency and release after serving seven years in prison.
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