Florida Judge Orders Release of Elderly Man Serving 20 Years for Firing Two Warning Shots


A Florida judge has ordered a new trial for Ronald Thompson, the 65-year-old disabled veteran who was sentenced to 20 years in prison under Florida's mandatory minimum law after firing two warning shots to scare off a gang of teenagers. In the meantime, the judge wants Thompson, who has already served three years of his 20 year sentence, released from prison. 

Thompson's story exemplifies just how awful mandatory minimum laws can be. In 2009, he was visiting an elderly friend at her daughter's home when the woman's 17-year-old grandson arrived. The boy's mother instructed her mother (Thompson's friend) not to let the teenager, who had a history of violence, into the house. Along with three other friends, the boy tried to force his way past his grandmother into the home. Thompson, fearing for his friend's safety, fired two warning shots into the ground. 

State Attorney Angela Corey charged Thompson with four counts of aggravated assault. What happened next was a nightmare for the disabled veteran: 

He turned down a three-year plea offer, believing that, due to his failing health, he would be dead in three years. Mr. Thompson has diabetes, high blood pressure, and he'd had a heart attack. He also believed that if a jury heard all the facts they'd acquit him, particularly in light of the grandson's history of violence toward his grandmother.

Thompson was convicted. However, the sentencing judge in his case, Judge John Skinner, refused to impose the 20-year mandatory minimum required by Florida's 10-20-Life law, calling the sentence unconstitutional and a "crime in itself." Judge Skinner imposed a three-year mandatory minimum instead. The prosecutor appealed the sentence and the appeals court overturned Judge Skinner's sentence, ruling that the 20-year mandatory minimum must be imposed.

Since his incarceration, Mr. Thompson's health has continued to deteriorate. He is apparently nearly blind, seeing only shadows. He walks with a cane and has had prostate surgery and surgery to remove two tumors from his face. He continues to struggle with diabetes and high blood pressure, neither of which is under control. Mr. Thompson's sister has seen the current state of his health and doesn't expect him to live longer than six months if he remains in prison.

In her monthly letter to supporters, Families Against Mandatory Minimums founder Julie Stewart reports that a judge threw out Thompson's sentence on June 26. "This is an incredible case that highlights everything that is wrong with mandatory minimum sentences in general," she writes, "and Florida's mandatory 10-20-life sentences for gun violations, in particular."