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  1. Opinion

Ruth: Scott should explain clemency decision

Orville Wollard, 60, will likely 
be in prison until 2028.
Orville Wollard, 60, will likely be in prison until 2028.
Published Oct. 2, 2015

Here is today's lesson for Law and Order 101. When a prosecutor offers you a plea deal, especially one involving zero time behind bars, grab the offer, kiss him on the cheek and run as fast as you can for the door.

Or consider the sad case of Orville "Lee" Wollard, who will be sitting in a Florida prison cell until 2028 because he: a) did something really dumb, and b) rejected a nice offer to stay out jail by insisting on going to trial.

Lesson No. 2: Never, ever go to trial if you can possibly avoid it. Remember, you will be judged by a jury of your peers. You see the problem.

In 2008, Wollard was a 53-year-old well-educated, gainfully employed man who found himself in a heated argument with his daughter's boyfriend. At some point Wollard fired a single warning shot into the wall of his home. No one was injured. And yet after rejecting a plea deal of five years' probation from Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill, Wollard was convicted at trial on a charge of aggravated assault with a weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

You would think after sitting in a cell for seven years we might all agree Wollard has learned his lesson and ought to be released. We're not talking Whitey Bulger here.

Yet when his case came before the clemency board last week, Gov. Rick Scott rejected Wollard's petition. And so Wollard can look forward to calling the Apalachee Correctional Institution home for another 13 years.

This is — and please forgive a complex legal term — stupid.

In opposing his release, Hill told the clemency board that Wollard had a history of "bad decisions." Well sure, rejecting a plea deal that would have spared him prison time and insisting on going to trial would certainly be evidence of making "bad decisions." But on the other hand, the entire prison population is a testament to dubious decision-making skills.

Even more confounding, under current Florida law the chances are quite good Wollard never would have been charged with firing the warning shot. The legislation was passed and signed into law by Scott last year partly because of the Wollard case.

Under the new law, judges are now permitted to consider "the totality of the circumstances involved in the offense," which in this case would have weighed heavily in Wollard's favor. After all, police reports detailing the altercation noted that the boyfriend, with apparent anger management issues, had ripped stitches out of Wollard's abdomen.

Let's pause here for a question. Let's say you are having a heated dispute with your daughter's boyfriend. And let's say in the course of the set-to, the boyfriend rips stitches out of your stomach. Could we at least agree that in such a scenario, one might be well within one's rights to discharge a warning shot to prevent the boyfriend from further stitch removal?

During the clemency hearing, Hill went into full Inspector Javert mode, noting the size of the bullet hole in the wall and how this poor chap, with a fistful of stitches in his hand, came within inches of suffering a fatal gunshot wound. But if the confrontation between Wollard and the lad was so fraught with life-threatening danger, why did Hill offer the defendant a rather generous deal of no jail time and five years' probation?

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During his seven years in the slammer, first-time offender Wollard has had a perfect disciplinary record. And yet the Florida Commission on Offender Review recommended the inmate's clemency petition be denied. And why is that? They won't say. Its star chamber proceedings are conducted in secret, and its paperwork is not subject to public records laws.

So a model prisoner convicted of a crime he likely would not be charged with today in Florida, and who was originally offered a plea deal that would have spared him prison time, is facing 13 more years behind bars based on the secret deliberations of faceless bureaucrats who are under no obligation to explain themselves.

Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater need to demand more transparency from the commission. Not to revisit clemency for Orville Wollard on the part of the governor and the Cabinet would not be just a miscarriage of justice.

It would be a very bad decision.

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