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Prosecutors reject move to modify Air Force veteran Wanless's sentence

Northwest Florida Daily News - 9/24/2020

Sep. 24--FORT WALTON BEACH -- Prosecutors in the case of Aaron Wanless, a local Air Force veteran now serving 28 years on multiple aggravated assault charges, have filed their response to a motion from Wanless' attorney seeking an Okaloosa County Circuit Court hearing on a further reduction in his sentence.

Broadly, the response, ordered last month by Circuit Judge William Stone, contends the court has no discretion in Wanless' sentencing and that prosecutors must agree to any departure from state mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

The charges against Wanless stem from a heavily publicized 2015 incident at a home on Yacht Club Drive in which he threatened his father with a knife and fired a gun in the direction of responding sheriff's deputies.

Wanless was charged with a single count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, three counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a firearm with discharge, and a single count of aggravated assault with a firearm with discharge.

Wanless had faced as long as 85 years in prison rather than the 48 years to which he was initially sentenced. Prosecutors had offered a plea deal of five years in prison, but Wanless, represented at the time by a public defender, rejected that offer in favor of proceeding to trial. Prosecutors sought a 68-year sentence during the 2017 trial, and Wanless eventually was sentenced to 48 years in prison.

That sentence was reduced to its current 28 years in a September 2019 hearing in front of Stone. The reduction was based on a decision earlier that year by the First District Court of Appeal on the application of the state's now-repealed "10-20-Life" law governing gun-involved crimes.

The law, repealed in 2016, but in force at the time of Wanless' offenses, had mandated a 10-year sentence for crimes in which a gun was displayed, a 20-year sentence for crimes in which a gun was used, and 25 years or more for crimes in which someone was wounded.

Wanless' 48-year sentence was the result of sentences on some charges running consecutively, one after the other, rather than concurrently, with one sentence term covering multiple counts. After the September hearing, sentences handed down for some of the charges were set to run concurrently, thus reducing the time Wanless would stay in prison.

In the motion seeking a hearing on Wanless' sentence, his attorney, Robert Malove, asked prosecutors to waive minimum mandatory sentencing requirements, and to modify the sentence to just over eight years -- the sentence imposed on the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge filed in connection with the knife attack -- or alternatively, to set the sentence on that charge to run concurrent to the sentence imposed on the other charges, which would leave Wanless with a 20-year sentence.

In the state's response to Malove's motion, Assistant State Attorney Cassie K. Reed contends that the state's rules of criminal procedure don't allow any sentence reduction. The response specifically notes that state criminal procedure rules don't allow reductions in "those cases in which the ... trial judge has imposed the minimum mandatory sentence or has no sentencing discretion."

"The current sentence imposed is lawful and any modification would be contrary and unsupported by the laws of this State," the response reads.

Elsewhere in the response, the State Attorney's Office notes a provision of state law in which "(o)nly the prosecuting attorney has the discretion to waive the minimum mandatory sentence."

Also in the "memorandum of law" section of the response, Reed points to a provision of state law noting that it "is the intent of the Legislature that offenders who actually possess, carry, display, use, threaten to use, or attempt to use firearms or destructive devices be punished to the fullest extent of the law ... ."

The response further notes that "it is well established that the imposition of a minimum mandatory sentence is a non-discretionary duty of the trial courts. Without the State's agreement the minimum mandatory sentence must be imposed."

In the 15-page motion seeking the hearing, Malove notes that at the time of the incident, Wanless was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses at the local Department of Veterans Affairs. Those circumstances stemmed from Wanless being injured in a non-combat motorcycle accident while on active duty with the Air Force -- almost losing a leg -- and his subsequent honorable discharge.

"Upon return to civilian life, (Wanless') mental health steadily spiraled downward," the motion notes. It also describes the incident that landed Wanless in prison as "a mentally ill veteran's failed attempt to commit 'suicide-by-cop.' "


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