Freed convict ordered back to jail after mandatory sentencing ruling

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A central Florida man serving a 20-year-sentence won his appeal and a judge set him free. Then, after turning his life around as a free man, the state ordered him back to prison. 

It is an unusual case, which illustrates the continuing debate over state sentencing laws.

Robert Woodall and his long-time fiancee, Stephanie Walker, have two sons. When their second son was born in 2004, Stephanie suffered post-partum depression, left Robert, and took the kids with her to Texas. 

"I watched them out the window, as they turned the corner. I broke out and cried," he recalled. 

Robert’s friends took him out drinking in Orlando, and on Christmas Eve 2004, he made the biggest mistake of his life. He got in a dispute with some men in an elevator. A security guard broke it up, but he found them again.

Robert pulled a gun, bashed one victim in the face and broke his nose, then pointed the gun toward another. 

"Everybody says they aren't drunk, but yeah I definitely had a few drinks in the club…pointed the gun at the ground and fired two shots. I figured that would stop them. And it did," he said.

A bullet ricocheted off the ground and struck his second victim’s ankle.

The victim with the broken nose asked the court to show a degree of clemency to Robert for the sake of his children. However, the judge had no flexibility for aggravated assault with a firearm.

Under Florida law, that got him 20 years in prison.

The courts later struck part of Florida's 10-20-life law, and state lawmakers changed it to give judges more discretion. After Robert Woodall served 11 years, he appealed, claiming a procedural error in his sentencing, and a judge used his discretion to set him free.

In 2016, he ruled there had been an error in his conviction, and released him on appeal.

"He came home telling the kids he would never go back. That he would never do anything like that,” said Stephanie. "He's got us going to church. He's got us involve in the school."

Robert worked to keep that promise. He poured their savings into a lawn business, and poured his sweat into keeping it going. He also found volunteer work, and his sons’ grades and spirits picked up along the way.

Robert was on course for redeeming himself, until his case took a twist earlier this year. While the state changed 10-20-life, the changes do not apply to all cases and they do not apply to people already sentenced. State Attorney General Pam Bondi's office said Woodall needs to serve the remainder of his 20-year sentence and an appeals court agreed.

Robert Woodall is now back behind bars and the Florida Supreme Court denied his appeal. 

Attorney General Pam Bondi would not discuss the Woodall case and was unavailable for an interview to discuss her perspective on mandatory sentencing laws in general.

But there are two sides to every story, and the push for 10-20-life started long before Woodall’s crime.  State Sen. Jack Latvala helped pass the 10-20-life nearly 20 years ago.

“We had record high crime in Florida," said Latvala. "What we did is produced a 46-year low in our crime rate…to make our families and our neighborhoods safer."

The court did convict Woodall of aggravated assault with a firearm. He did bash a man’s face, and fired a shot that struck another man’s ankle. The court only struck part of 10-20-life, and Woodall did get 20 years. 

While Latvala is not familiar with Woodall's case, he said changes in the mandatory sentencing law should not apply to those already sentenced.    

"I don't see any reason to retroactively lighten the load," said Latvala. "These are bad guys we took them off the street. And I think we need to stay off the street."

Other lawmakers disagree, and that is driving the ongoing debate over Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. 

"I think it is wrong for the state to do that," said State Sen. Darryl Rouson. “We must get away from the mentality of purely mandatory sentencing and imprisonment… that is why we need to give judges a certain amount of discretion."