A state attorney who declined to seek the death penalty in any of her cases announced she will change the policy after the Florida Supreme Court ruled against her Thursday.
The 5-2 decision found the governor acted within his authority in deciding to remove capital prosecutions from the office of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
“Ayala and her amici urge this court to invalidate the reassignment orders by viewing this case as a power struggle over prosecutorial discretion,” Florida Supreme Court Justice C. Alan Lawson wrote for the majority. “We decline the invitation because by effectively banning the death penalty in the Ninth Circuit — as opposed to making case-specific determinations as to whether the facts of each death-penalty eligible case justify seeking the death penalty — Ayala has exercised no discretion at all.”
Following the release of the opinion, Ayala said she organized a death penalty review panel to evaluate the first-degree murder cases in her circuit. The panel will be made up of seven experienced assistant state attorneys.
“I respect the decision and appreciate that the Supreme Court of Florida has responded and provided clarification. … With implementation of this panel, it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly,” Ayala said in a statement.
Scott has reassigned nearly 30 cases to State Attorney Brad King since Ayala’s March announcement that her office would not seek the death penalty because of the cost and time involved. The announcement was tied to the case of Markeith Loyd, who was charged with killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and a police officer.
“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime,” Scott said. “I absolutely disagreed with State Attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice.”
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi echoed the governor’s praise.
“This year, we have seen the brutal murders of law enforcement officers in State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s circuit, and her unconscionable decision to never seek the death penalty will not be tolerated,” Bondi said in a statement. “The governor and I will continue to do all we can to protect our citizens.”
But two justices, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, felt Ayala “acted well within the bounds of Florida law regarding the death penalty.” Her announcement came after years of changes to Florida’s death penalty, the dissenting justices wrote.
“She did not announce a refusal to prosecute the guilt of defendants charged with first-degree murder,” Pariente wrote. “Rather, State Attorney Ayala announced that she would not seek a sentence that produces years of appeals and endless constitutional challenges and implicates decades of significant jurisprudential developments, many of which have emanated over the years from the United States Supreme Court.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida called the majority decision “deeply disappointing.”
“Florida law gives independently elected state attorneys broad discretion to determine how best to seek justice in the cases they are responsible for prosecuting,” the group’s deputy director, Melba Pearson, said in a statement. “Florida state attorneys answer to the voters they represent, not to the governor. Gov. Scott’s intervention in State Attorney Ayala’s cases dangerously undermines the independence of our state’s prosecutors, and the Supreme Court’s regrettable decision today opens the door to further politicizing of our justice system.”
The ACLU of Florida filed one of a slew of amicus briefs from attorney groups, crime victims’ families, and advocates for immigrants and minorities.
Ayala, the first black elected state attorney in Florida, was voted in partially because of her desire to correct racial inequities in the criminal justice system, argued a brief filed by groups including the NAACP’s Florida conference.
Before the governor appointed Lawson to the bench last year, the Supreme Court saw a dissenting opinion from his predecessor, Justice James E.C. Perry. Perry blasted the state’s death penalty as discriminatory in the case of Mark James Asay. Perry, who is black, also convinced his fellow justices to read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Devil In The Grove” to understand the history of racism in Florida’s justice system.
Last week, Asay became the first white man executed in Florida for killing a black man since the state’s death penalty was restored in the 1970s.
The court’s decision in the Ayala case came relatively quickly after oral arguments were held in late June. The justices just returned from a summer recess that began in mid-July.