Days after Gov. Rick Scott signed a law effectively putting the state’s death penalty back on track, a newly elected Central Florida prosecutor stunned legislators Thursday by announcing she will not pursue death sentences for any capital cases during her time in office.
The decision by Aramis Ayala, the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, sparked an official rebuke from Scott, who quickly appointed an outspoken supporter of the death penalty as special prosecutor in a high-profile case involving accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd.
Scott appointed Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, to handle the case of Loyd after Ayala refused to recuse herself.
Loyd is accused in the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton in January. Loyd is also accused of the December shooting death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon. Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis died as a result of a traffic crash during the hunt for Loyd.
Ayala “has made it clear that she will not fight for justice,” Scott said in a statement announcing his reassignment of the case to King, who is based in Ocala and has been the circuit’s chief prosecutor for nearly three decades.
“I am outraged and sickened by this loss of life and many families’ lives have been forever changed because of these senseless murders. These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served,” Scott said in the statement.
Ayala’s decision infuriated other state officials, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, drew harsh criticism from law-enforcement organizations and prompted some legislators to call for her ouster.
Ayala, who defeated incumbent State Attorney Jeff Ashton in a Democratic primary in August in the 9th Judicial Circuit, said Thursday that, while she has the discretion to seek the death penalty in capital cases, “doing so is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice.”
Ayala cited numerous problems with the death penalty — on hold for more than a year statewide because of court rulings — as the rationale for her decision, which she said she reached after “extensive and painstaking thought and consideration.”
The death penalty has not proven to be a deterrent to crime and the cases drag on for years, adding to victims’ anguish, according to Ayala.
“I do understand that this is a controversial issue but what is not controversial is the evidence that led me to this decision,” she said.
But Republican state House members from the region held a hurriedly scheduled news conference Thursday morning and attacked Ayala for failing to pursue the death penalty against Loyd.
The lawmakers accused the prosecutor of failing to do her job, which they maintain requires her to seek the death penalty in certain instances, including cases in which law-enforcement officers were killed.
Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican whose district includes part of Orange County, said he was outraged and called it “a slap in the face” to Loyd’s alleged victims and the law-enforcement community at large.
Senate budget chief Jack Latvala, who is mulling a run for governor, went further.
“I think she ought to be thrown out of office,” the Clearwater Republican told reporters Thursday.
Bondi, whose office represents the state in death-penalty cases before the Florida Supreme Court, also criticized the local prosecutor.
Ayala’s decision “sends a dangerous message” to residents and visitors to the Orlando area and “is a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer,” Bondi said in a prepared statement.
But Jacksonville criminal-defense lawyer Bill Sheppard, who has represented defendants in capital cases for nearly five decades, disagreed.
Ayala’s position is more in line with a growing national trend by courts, along with some governors and legislatures, that takes a harsher view of the death penalty, Sheppard said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“This prosecutor is reflecting the current American national values relating to the death penalty,” he said. “And anybody that’s saying she is not upholding the law is not familiar with the law. Prosecutors have prosecutorial discretion, and they exercise it every day. … So what is different about this other than she is going against their values but she is reflecting the current American values.”
Even some death-penalty proponents agreed that Ayala enjoys latitude regarding whether to seek death sentences.
“I’m a big supporter of local discretion on filing decisions,” Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.
Florida voters have the ability to vote for state attorneys every four years, Bradley said.
“Each community has its own unique challenges when it comes to dealing with criminal activity. Florida is a diverse state with a lot of different attitudes,” he said. “And each community should be able to judge decisions such as the one made today and then make their judgments accordingly.”
The tumult over Ayala came on the same day a House committee overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the ability to impeach state attorneys and public defenders, a power now limited to the removal of the governor, the lieutenant governor, Florida Cabinet members and judges.
Ayala’s decision “goes beyond prosecutorial discretion and into the realm of dereliction of duty,” said House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor in line to become speaker of the chamber in 2020.
Florida’s death penalty has been under a harsh spotlight since the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 decided that the state’s capital sentencing system violated the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.
Florida lawmakers last year rushed to address the ruling. In part, they made a change to require that at least 10 of 12 jurors recommend death for the sentence to be imposed. But in October, a majority of the Florida Supreme Court struck down that law, finding that it was unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous jury decisions, something required in all other cases.
Lawmakers again scurried to address the issue during the first days of the legislative session that began last week, passing a measure requiring unanimous jury recommendations. Scott signed the measure into law on Monday.