NEW PORT RICHEY — For 12 years, J.J. Daiak maintained his innocence.
In 2006 he was convicted of aggravated assault on law enforcement officers after he fired two gunshots inside his home two years earlier while Pasco County sheriff's deputies stood at his door.
But after his conviction was overturned for ineffective assistance of counsel — and after nearly 10 years of incarceration — Daiak of Holiday admitted guilt Friday. He accepted a plea deal offered by the prosecution. In exchange, he'll get to go home within a week or two, once the Department of Corrections finalizes the paperwork.
After he entered the guilty plea before Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, he exchanged glances with his longtime girlfriend, Donna Vaillancourt, who was in the audience. She smiled back.
"I am beaming," Vaillancourt said after the hearing. "I'm ecstatic that it's finally over."
When Daiak took the deal, though, he waived his right to appeal, meaning he cannot try to get the charges against him thrown out altogether, said Eva Vergos, an assistant state attorney prosecuting the case. Daiak had hoped to preserve that right by taking advantage of a change in Florida law.
Daiak, now 64, had maintained that the shots he fired on Sept. 5, 2004, didn't constitute aggravated assault. It was Labor Day weekend and Hurricane Frances was barrelling down on Pasco County. Warned that looting was possible with the arrival of the storm, Daiak had retrieved his revolver, he has said.
He has said that when he heard voices at his front door, he fired two shots inside his home to let whoever was out there know he was armed. The bullets hit a wall and a sofa.
He claimed he didn't realize they were deputies. Nevertheless, a jury found him guilty, and a judge handed him 20 years in state prison, the minimum mandatory sentence for aggravated assault with a firearm. At the time, that crime fell under the state's 10-20-life sentencing statute, which prescribes automatic minimum sentences of 10 years, 20 years or life in prison for certain gun crimes.
In 2014 the conviction and subsequent sentence were overturned, and attorneys prepared for a new trial. Daiak entered a not guilty plea before changing it to guilty Friday.
The change in Florida law that Daiak, a former attorney, hoped to capitalize upon took effect on Friday. Aggravated assault was removed from the 10-20-life statute, meaning there is no longer a mandatory minimum sentence for the offense.
Daiak's attorneys argued that if he pleaded guilty, Siracusa could simply sentence him under the new guidelines and the defendant wouldn't have to accept a plea deal, thereby preserving his right to appeal the charges against him. And he'd still be scheduled for release.
Prosecutors, however, argued that the judge couldn't do that.
Siracusa agreed he could impose a sentence under the new guidelines, but explained to Daiak that doing so would be risky. An appeals court could disagree with Siracusa's interpretation of the rules and decide Daiak must serve the full 20 years. "This is not a conditional plea," the circuit judge said. "I'm not accepting a plea from you today under the idea that it's only because the 20 years don't apply."
That was a curveball for Daiak.
"That's an issue we hadn't considered," he said from the jury box in a New Port Richey courtroom, his hands shackled to his waist.
He conferred in private with his attorneys for roughly an hour. Ultimately, he decided the right to appeal was not worth the risk of another decade on the inside, and he accepted the state's deal of 10 years in prison. With 3,527 days already spent in custody, and with time credited for good behavior, he should be eligible for immediate release, Siracusa said.
Vaillancourt said she understood why her boyfriend wanted to be able to appeal, but said she was happy with the outcome of Friday's hearing.
"Nobody wants to be walking around a felon for the rest of his life, especially when you are innocent," she said. "I think he made the best decision (given) the circumstances."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @josh_solomon15.