Left behind by the law - 20 years in prison

Confined to jail by 10-20-life

POLK COUNTY, Florida – If he had raped, killed, or robbed, he may have been out of jail by now.  But Erik Weyant fired a gun. And he’ll be paying for it for two decades, even though he didn’t hurt anybody and even his convicting jury decided he wasn’t trying to kill any one.

Weyant, 32, is nine years into a mandatory 20-year sentence that the legislature, governor, and even his sentencing judge have recently suggested he shouldn’t have to serve. But it doesn’t matter because the law was different when he was sentenced in 2007.

Back when he was 22, Erik got into an altercation when leaving a Lakeland bar after closing time. A jury then convicted him of firing a gun toward a crowd as he drove away. Erik had a clean record prior to the incident and claimed the shots were merely in self-defense. But he was ultimately convicted of aggravated assault with no intent to kill.

Because the state’s tough-on-crime “10-20-Life” law required a mandatory 20-year-sentence at the time for anyone found guilty of firing a gun in the commission of a crime, Polk County Judge Neil Roddenbery said he had no choice but to sentence the small-business owner to two decades behind bars. 

The judge even apologized at sentencing, saying his “hands were tied” by the Legislature. The jury was not allowed to know the conviction would come with a mandatory minimum sentence and the judge was not allowed any discretion.

“If I had the discretion, I would not have sentenced him to 20 years,” Roddenbery told 10Investigates earlier this year, pointing to Erik’s clean prior record.  “A fixed number doesn't allow you to factor in anything other than the conviction.”

But since the sentencing, Florida’s legislature has reformed 10-20-Life, removing the aggravated assault charge from the statute so judges had more discretion when issuing sentences. Legal experts tell 10Investigates had Erik committed the crime in 2016, he would have likely only faced a few months in jail.

However, the reform was not retroactive. So Erik will continue to serve the final 10-plus years of his 20-year sentence unless the governor and cabinet choose to grant him clemency.

The clemency process for someone like Erik a complicated one, with the governor or cabinet needing to order a review from the Florida Commission on Offender Review.  Then, after months of behind-the-scenes research, the commission will issue a recommendation.  If favorable, a felon still needs approval from the governor and two of three cabinet members to see his or her sentence commuted.

State Rep. Neil Combee (R-Polk City) has lobbied on Weyant’s behalf, but 10Investigates recently took the case to Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam. 

None have yet called for the commission to investigate Weyant’s case, but all four offices have told 10Investigates they would start looking into it.

“It’s important that we have a process in place to give everybody a fair look to see if they would have qualified for different treatment if the law, as it is today, was in place when they committed the crime,” said Putnam.

The governor signed the 10-20-Life reform into law this summer, changing the way how cases like Erik’s would be sentenced in the future.

“Really all we’re asking for is to review the case,” said Greg Newburn with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).  “I think Erik’s paid more than enough: nine years in prison for a crime where nobody was injured. I think he’s paid his debt.

“Given that change in the law, and the fact that someone convicted today of the same crime would not face the mandatory sentence Weyant received, the question is whether Weyant should be granted relief - or, at least, whether the appropriate authority should review his case...barring some unknown bit of information the answer to that question is yes.”

Newburn also points to Weyant’s perfect behavior while behind bars the last nine years, somewhat of a rarity for even the best inmates.   

“Erik Weyant is like everybody else,” Newburn continued. “He’s your son; he’s your neighbor; he’s a guy with no real criminal history, trying to make ends meet, trying to do right, goes to a bar, has some trouble, tries to defend himself, and lands in prison. This really could be any of us on the wrong day.

WATCH: Discussion of mandatory minimums with Greg Newburn

Weyant’s mother, Linda, bolsters Erik’s case with a list of honors and certifications he’s racked up while serving time.

“It’s hard, very hard, to know that he’s missed so much. And he’s going to miss even more,” Linda Weyant said.  “He hurt no one...other than himself.”

It’s been nine years since Linda has spent a day at home with her son. And she’s hoping she doesn’t have to go 11 more before she gets to do it again.

“Erik is a very good person and he deserves a second chance,” Linda said. “He didn’t hurt anyone. No one was hurt at all.”

Contact information for local legislators:
Note: some are leaving office in November 

Senator Party Address Social

Brandes, Jeff

Parts of Hillsborough & Pinellas
Republican District Office:
9800 4th Street North
Suite 200
St. Petersburg, FL 33702
(727) 563-2100
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Dean, Charles S. "Charlie" , Sr.

Parts of Citrus
Republican District Office:
405 Tompkins Street
Inverness, FL 34450
(352) 860-5175
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Detert, Nancy C.

Parts of Sarasota
Republican District Office:
417 Commercial Court
Suite D
Venice, FL 34292
(941) 480-3547
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Galvano, Bill

Parts of DeSoto, hardee, Hillsborough, Manatee
Republican District Office:
1023 Manatee Avenue West
Suite 201
Bradenton, FL 34205
(941) 741-3401

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Joyner, Arthenia L.

Parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas
Democrat District Office:
508 West Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard
Suite C
Tampa, FL 33603-3415
(813) 233-4277
N/A

Latvala, Jack

Parts of Pinellas
Republican District Office:
26133 U.S. Highway 19 North
Suite 201
Clearwater, FL 33763
(727) 793-2797
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Lee, Tom

Parts of Hillsborough
Republican District Office:
915 Oakfield Drive
Suite D
Brandon, FL 33511
(813) 653-7061
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Legg, John

Parts of Hillsborough, Pasco
Republican District Office:
262 Crystal Grove Boulevard
Lutz, FL 33548
(813) 909-9919
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Simpson, Wilton

Parts of Hernando, Pasco
Republican District Office:
5612 Grand Boulevard
(Post Office Box 787)
New Port Richey, FL 34656
(727) 816-1120
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Soto, Darren

Parts of Polk
Democrat District Office:
Kissimmee City Hall
101 North Church Street
Suite 305
Kissimmee, FL 34741
(407) 846-5187
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Stargel, Kelli

Parts of Polk
Republican

District Office:
2033 East Edgewood Drive
Suite 1
Lakeland, FL 33803
(863) 668-3028

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Ahern, Larry
Pinellas Facebook
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Albritton, Ben
DeSoto, Hardee, Polk Facebook
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Boyd, Jim
Manatee, Sarasota Facebook
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Burgess Jr., Danny
Pasco Facebook
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Burton, Coleen
Polk Facebook

Combee, Neil
Polk, Osceola Facebook
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Corcoran, Richard
Pasco Facebook
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Cruz, Janet
Hillsborough Facebook
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Dudley, Dwight
Pinellas Facebook
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Gonzalez, Julio
Sarasota Facebook
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Grant, James "Jamie"
Hillsborough, Pinellas Facebook
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Harrison, Shawn
Hillsborough Facebook
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Ingoglia, Blaise
Hernando Facebook
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La Rosa, Mike
Polk, Osceola Facebook

Latvala, Chris
Pinellas Facebook
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Murphy, Amanda
Pasco Facebook
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Narain, Ed
Hillsborough Facebook
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Peters, Kathleen
Pinellas Facebook
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Pilon, Ray
Sarasota Facebook
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Raburn, Jake
Hillsborough Facebook
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Hillsborough Facebook
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Rouson, Darryl
Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota Facebook
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Smith, Jimmie
Citrus, Hernado Facebook
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Spano, Ross
Hillsborough Facebook
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Sprowls, Chris
Pinellas Facebook
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Steube, Greg
Manatee, Sarasota Facebook
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Wood, John
Polk Facebook

Young, Dana
Hillsborough Facebook
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