After learning about the cases of Erik Weyant, Orville Lee Wollard, and, just last month, Marissa Alexander, we thought we had seen the most outrageous consequences of Florida's 10-20-Life gun sentencing law. We were wrong. Meet Ronald Thompson, a disabled veteran who was sentenced to 20 years for firing two warning shots into the ground to protect his elderly friend.
Thompson's sentence is so disturbing that FAMM's Florida project director Greg Newburn is calling on Gov. Scott's Stand Your Ground Task Force, initiated in the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing, to examine the 10-20-Life law as part of its review. From FAMM's press release today:
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.”