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.
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.”
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Note: some are leaving office in November
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Dean, Charles S. "Charlie" , Sr.
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