Florida attorney seeks to shorten or vacate 48-year prison sentence of veteran with PTSD

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Had he accepted a plea agreement offered to him ahead of his 2017 trial, Aaron Wanless would in all likelihood be a free man today.

A Fort Lauderdale attorney has laid the blame for Wanless' continued incarceration at the feet of the public defender who represented him. He filed a motion June 20 calling on Okaloosa County Circuit Court Judge William Stone to "vacate, set aside or correct" a sentence that, as it stands, would leave Wanless imprisoned until 2042. 

Air Force veteran Aaron Wanless initially was sentenced to 48 years in prison for charges related to a confrontation with Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies in 2015. His sentence has since been reduced twice, and another effort is underway to lower it again.

Background on the case

Harsh sentence:Troubled vet sentenced to 48 years for shooting at lawmen

No way to win?:Man accused of assaulting deputies found guilty

A plea for mercy:'I can't be silent any longer' - Wife of veteran fights for husband's release

The Air Force veteran was battling post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses in April 2015 when he threatened his father with a knife and then fired a gun in the general direction of Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies.

Wanless declined a prosecution offer of 5.5 years in prison in return for a plea to four felony charges and chose instead to take his case to court, claiming he was innocent by virtue of insanity.

Prosecutors added a fifth aggravated assault-related felony charge to the mix after the plea was rejected, and when Wanless was found guilty Stone relied upon the since revoked 10-20-Life law to sentence him to 48 years in prison.

The motion filed Monday by attorney Robert David Malove states Public Defender Ricky Dayaram failed Wanless by not properly conveying ahead of trial the true strength of the prosecution case against him.

"Trial counsel's passive advice did not communicate the certain defeat the defendant was facing at trial," the motion says. "Trial counsel should have effectively and firmly communicated how the case was doomed." 

The incident for which Wanless was arrested occurred April 15, 2015, when deputies responded to a 911 call from a home on Yacht Club Drive. When deputes arrived, Wanless’ father, David Wanless, told them his son had threatened him with knives.

While deputies were at the scene they heard what they originally described as an explosion, which turned out to be Wanless firing a random shot from a 9 mm handgun. For a few tense moments they tried to talk Wanless into dropping the firearm he was holding as he appeared to be contemplating raising the weapon to force the deputies to shoot him. 

In the end, Wanless ran off, only to be arrested the next day near the scene of the standoff the night before.

Wanless sent an email to his Veterans Affairs psychiatrist during the short time he was on the run that indicated his medications were failing him and he didn't know what he was doing.

“This medication is killing me,” he wrote. “My brain is malfunctioning.”

David Wanless ultimately refused to press charges against his son. And Wanless' wife and family would later tell reporters the man arrested was not the same Aaron they knew and loved.

“David claimed the look on Aaron’s face ‘wasn’t him,' ” a deputy wrote in the 2015 arrest report.

Citing domestic violence statutes, the State Attorney's Office moved forward with its prosecution without David Wanless' consent. Aaron Wanless was ultimately found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, three counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a firearm with discharge and aggravated assault with a firearm with discharge.

The motion states that Dayaram never told Wanless that it didn't matter that he had not fired his weapon at the officers he confronted.

"Trial counsel never informed (Wanless) that it did not matter whether he shot at the police or not. The simple fact of a discharge ... was sufficient to satisfy the elements of the crimes," the motion states. "Defendant's guilt was a foregone conclusion regardless of where the initial discharge was aimed. Shooting at the police was irrelevant."

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Likewise, Malove's motion states public defender Dayaram failed to properly inform Wanless that a plea of insanity could not stand if prosecutors were able to convince a jury that he was intoxicated at the time of the confrontation with police. 

"Voluntary intoxication is inadmissible to show a defendant lacked the specific intent to commit a crime," the motion states. “A person is voluntarily intoxicated if he or she knowingly consumed a substance that he or she knew or should have known could cause intoxication."

Wanless' father told deputies just prior to the standoff that his son had come to his home "really drunk." Evidence at trial also revealed Wanless had struggled with substance abuse and was taking medication for his mental health issues that were known to enhance the effects of alcohol. 

"Considering the totality of the circumstances, the insanity defense was highly unlikely to succeed because it would be eviscerated by evidence of (Wanless') voluntary intoxication," the motion states.

Wanless was also unaware, the motion adds, that prosecutors had brought in an expert witness to testify that he did not believe Wanless to be mentally impaired at the time of the shooting incident. That witness would counter expert testimony provided by a defense expert who found Wanless to be insane at the time he committed the crime.

The defense expert, Dr. Julie Harper, was also married to a former public defense attorney and conflict counsel, the motion noted, which gave prosecutors a tool with which to discredit her testimony. 

The motion also states Dayaram led Wanless to believe the 10-20-Life criminal punishment enhancements might not apply to him in the event of his conviction.

Wanless knew that the infamous 10-20-Life statute had been repealed ahead of his being found guilty, but the law was still standing at the time of the incident for which he was arrested and prosecutors argued at his sentencing hearing it should be applied in his case. Stone agreed.

Wanless "told trial counsel that he did not believe 10-20-Life would require (the) court to impose minimum mandatory sentences in the event of his conviction," the motion states. "Trial counsel told (Wanless) 'We’ll have to wait and see.' This created a hope in defendant that 10-20-Life might not apply to his case."

Stone sentenced Wanless to eight years on the first count of aggravated assault for which he was convicted and was compelled by the 10-20-Life law to add a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence to that. The judge loaded another 20 years onto the sentence to make the total prison stay 48 years.

In 2019, the First District Court of Appeals ordered Wanless to be resentenced and the second 20 years of the sentence eliminated. That shortened the sentence to 28 years. A 2021 motion to further amend the sentence dropped the total to 21 years.

Most who are familiar with the case and with Wanless still believe the sentence is unjust. 

"I join with Aaron Wanless' family and supporters in hope that this will be the motion to bring him closer to home. I'm grateful for the state's agreed resolution on the motion for reduction of sentence back in 2021, but the punishment still does not fit the crime," Peter Armstrong, a Malove paralegal who grew up in Fort Walton Beach, said in an email.

While the motion applauds Dayaram for battling at sentencing to convince Stone the 10-20-Life statute should not have applied in Wanless' case, it states that the public defender apparently never argued that a statute existed that provided "four different means of avoiding the minimum mandatory sentence for aggravated assault."

The motion suggests Wanless would qualify to avoid the minimum mandatory sentence because he was not committing a crime at the time he discharged the weapon prior to his arrest, he did not pose a threat to public safety and "perhaps most noteworthy," the totality of the circumstances surrounding the 2015 incident, including Wanless' extensive history of mental illness. 

The Malove motion will be reviewed by Stone who, if he finds it relevant, will request a response from the First Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office. Any ruling on the motion would likely be made at a hearing, Armstrong said.