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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The travesty imprisonment of Orville “Lee” Wollard will continue, with the blessing of Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Last week, Scott cast the decisive vote to keep Wollard locked up for firing a warning shot after being attacked in his home by his daughter’s boyfriend. Police said the boyfriend ripped the surgical stitches from Wollard’s abdomen.

The 60-year-old first-time offender has already served about seven years of a mandatory 20-year term. A Polk County jury had convicted him of shooting into a dwelling and aggravated assault with a firearm.

A charge of child abuse was included because the boyfriend of Wollard’s daughter was 17 at the time of the incident, in 2008.

Curiously, the same prosecutor who’d originally offered Wollard a deal of five years’ probation (with no prison time) told the state clemency board on Wednesday that Wollard should stay behind bars after all this time.

State Attorney Jerry Hill offered no good explanation for his 180-degree pivot, nor did Scott bother to ask how Wollard could suddenly be a menace to society when he was deemed suitable for probation before his trial.

Hill asked clemency officials to keep Wollard in prison because he has “a history of bad decisions” that includes drug use. A Department of Corrections official told Times/Herald reporter Steve Bousquet that Wollard has a perfect disciplinary record at the Apalachee Correctional Institution, where he’s an inmate.

Wollard, who has a master’s degree, was a former human-resources specialist at SeaWorld in Orlando. His case has become part of a national (and bipartisan) movement to reform minimum-mandatory sentencing guidelines and give judges more leeway.

Those rigid laws have worsened prison overcrowding, at enormous cost to taxpayers. In Washington, a coalition of Democratic and Republican senators has announced a plan to cut mandatory prison terms for nonviolent offenders in the federal system.

Donald Jacobsen, the Florida circuit judge who handed the 20-year hitch to Wollard, conceded at the time that, “If it wasn’t for the minimum-mandatory aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of the event.”

Jacobsen had no choice then but to follow the law.

Lee Wollard stood “stunned.”

He’d rejected the prosecutor’s offer of probation because he didn’t want a criminal record, and believed he’d done nothing wrong. He gambled on a trial, and lost big-time.

Ironically, state legislators last year cited Wollard’s case among others when they rewrote and expanded the controversial “stand your ground” statutes. No longer can a person be arrested for firing a warning shot if he or she feels threatened by use of force. Unfortunately for Wollard, that major change in the law wasn’t retroactive.

Scott, who signed the reform legislation, had a chance to do the right thing and stand up for Wollard. Instead, he sided with the staff of the clemency board and Wollard’s two-faced prosecutor, Hill.

Hill showed to Scott and other Cabinet members on the panel an enlarged photograph of the bullet hole inside Wollard’s house. He argued that the altercation was almost over when Wollard shot off the revolver close to his daughter’s boyfriend.

“There was no reason to fire that shot,” Hill said.

Worst-case scenario: Wollard made a reckless decision trying to scare off a teenager who’d just clawed Wollard’s stitches.

And for that — shooting a slug into a wall — a man who’s never been convicted of any other crime should rot in a cell for 20 years? It’s pure lunacy, and an abominable perversion of the justice system.

There are armed robbers, rapists, even killers who will do less prison time than Lee Wollard.

If the clemency board is hiding some deep, dark information about him, all of it should be made public. But if the panel was swayed by the melodramatic stagecraft of the prosecutor, Wollard ought to be freed.

Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican, is introducing a bill to change minimum-mandatory sentences in cases like Wollard’s. Combee, who also sponsored last year’s reform bill, cannot fathom how a person who’d been offered probation is now — after seven passive years of incarceration — deserving of 13 more.

Said Combee: “It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me, or anybody else.”

Including Wollard’s wife, Sandy, who was in tears when she left the Capitol. “I’m shocked,” she told reporters.

Her husband isn’t eligible for release until July 13, 2028, the same month as his 73rd birthday.

Maybe then they’ll put a real criminal in that cell.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

Photo: Ben (via Flickr)