- Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
After losing a months-long battle to prevent capital prosecutions, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala agreed to pursue the death penalty in future first-degree murder cases when it's unanimously recommended by a review panel of prosecutors.
"The Supreme Court has ruled and I have responsibility to follow the law," she said at a press conference Friday outside the Orange County courthouse. "My personal opinion, the facts of the case, none of that changes, however, that is personal, and that is factual and research-based. When the Supreme Court believes and they interpret the law in a way that may be different from how I interpret it, it is absolutely up to me to abide by that regardless of how I interpret the research and the data."
The Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 against Ayala's petition to stop Gov. Rick Scott from removing her from death penalty cases after she announced in March that she wouldn't pursue the death penalty in first-degree murder cases in her circuit because, among other things, it's not a proven deterrent to crime, lacks a public safety benefit and is legally questionable under Florida's death sentencing scheme. Scott removed 29 cases from her jurisdiction and reassigned them to Ocala-based State Attorney Brad King.
After the court's ruling, Ayala announced the implementation of a seven-member death penalty review panel to examine first-degree murder cases individually and determine whether capital punishment should be sought. Similar to a jury, all seven prosecutors must agree unanimously to pursue the death penalty. Ayala made clear Friday that none of the prosecutors has an opposition to the death penalty.
After Thursday's ruling, a spokesperson for Scott's office said Ayala needed to make it clear that her office would seek the death penalty under Florida law when appropriate.
"I have vested my authority into the review panel and have no intention of usurping the authority which I've granted," she said.
Ayala says she will not request back the 29 cases removed from her office, though she believes with the implementation of the review panel, she could legally do so.
"I don't think it's in the best interest of the families of homicide victims or their cases at this point," she says. "There's a difference between giving up and letting go. At this time, I believe the most compassionate and human response is to allow them to remain with the current prosecutor and not be impacted."
Still, Ayala's concessions did not seem to be enough for some. State Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Longwood, sent a letter to the governor after the court ruling asking for Ayala to be removed from office.
"She has made it clear she does not intend to consider the full range of punishment for perpetrators of the most despicable crimes, and I continue to be concerned about her ability to handle future cases in accordance with our constitution," Cortes says.
Ayala didn't seem to be unnerved by those critics Friday.
"At this point my focus is this community, which I love," she says. "My focus is justice in this administration. That's what I absolutely intend to do and that's what we're going to head to do now."