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This year's Orange-Osceola state attorney candidates offer voters a real choice on Aug. 18

Don't skip this race on your ballot

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The State Attorney for Florida's 9th Judicial Circuit, Aramis Ayala, often describes her position by saying she is not the boss of the police, but she does grade their homework. As the prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties, she is one of our region's chief law enforcement officers, deciding which cases are prosecuted in court, and even how those decisions are made.

The state attorney depends on the integrity of local policing to build solid criminal cases against defendants. Some Central Florida police officers have already received failing grades from Ayala in July, when she took the unprecedented step of releasing the names of officers with ethical or criminal complaints, usually a private document (aka the "Brady Alert List") disclosed only in trials.

Ayala, the first elected Black prosecutor in Florida's history, is perhaps most widely known for her 2017 decision to discontinue seeking the death penalty in prosecuting capital crimes. Then-Gov. Rick Scott responded by removing 29 murder cases from Ayala's oversight. Ayala challenged Scott's action to the Florida Supreme Court, but his case reassignments were upheld.

Ayala's name does not appear on the ballots mailed out to voters last week, the first votes to be counted toward the Aug. 18 primary election. Citing her conflict with the death penalty, which was ruled constitutional in Florida after Ayala's election, she chose to step down at the end of her term. That leaves four serious contenders to replace her at the start of 2021.

Democratic voters have four choices on the Aug. 18 primary ballot:

Deborah Barra, the 9th Circuit's current chief assistant state attorney

Monique Worrell, former head of the 9th Circuit state attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, and current lead attorney for a national justice-reform group

Belvin Perry Jr., a former prosecutor and the 9th Circuit's former chief judge

Ryan Williams, a prosecutor handling death penalty cases in the neighboring 5th Circuit

The winner is all but guaranteed to become the next state attorney, as the nominee will face only a non-party-affiliated candidate, Jose Torroella, on the Nov. 3 ballot. Only Democrats can vote in the Aug. 18 primary, about 40 percent of eligible voters – meaning Democrats alone will determine the winner, due to Florida's ridiculous closed-primary laws. This particular partisan dimension, in a year dominated by Black Lives Matter headlines, makes this field of choices even more compelling. Will Democratic voters choose an experienced prosecutor, a progressive reformer or even a former chief judge?

We asked the four Democratic candidates questions about six important issues. In print, we present two responses from each candidate; their complete responses can be seen on our website.

THE QUESTIONS:

1) Death Penalty: What is your position on the death penalty itself, and if you are elected, do you plan to seek the death penalty in capital cases?

2) Corruption: How do you plan to prosecute public corruption and financial crimes? Where do you see the most need for these types of prosecutions now? Will you continue the office's practice of sending Sunshine Law complaints to the FDLE, or will you handle them locally?

3) Prosecutorial Experience: How important is prosecutorial experience to the success of a state attorney? What unique experience will you bring to the role?

4) Police Accountability: How will you hold police officers accountable who are violent, break the law, or violate the public's trust? If elected, will you continue releasing the office's "Brady Alert List" of ethically compromised police officers?

5) Systemic Racism: What is your position on the Black Lives Matter movement? How do you see your election as a way to fight systemic racism and advance criminal justice reform in policing and our courts?

6) Drug Prosecution: Do you plan to reduce or eliminate arrests for minor drug crimes, such as those for possession of marijuana?

THE CANDIDATES:

Deborah Barra, the 9th Circuit's current chief assistant state attorney - PHOTO COURTESY DEBORAH BARRA CAMPAIGN
  • Photo courtesy Deborah Barra campaign
  • Deborah Barra, the 9th Circuit's current chief assistant state attorney

Deborah Barra

Police Accountability
I will prosecute anyone who breaks the law. It doesn't matter if that person is wearing a uniform. I have personally prosecuted 3 police officers and I believe I am one of a few people in the entire country that can say I successfully prosecuted a cop at trial for shooting into the home of an innocent family. I believe the State Attorney should lead by example. My prosecutors will have zero tolerance for police misconduct.

I am currently a member of the Brady committee and I will continue releasing the Brady Alert List.

Systemic Racism
I support the movement and believe it's long overdue. It's great seeing the public become informed about policing and racism and I believe it's going to lead to real change. The State Attorney has discretion on which cases to move forward to formal prosecution. I believe our job is to call out bad behavior, prosecute when necessary and drop cases when necessary. Our number one responsibility is to do the right thing. I don't care if that means we drop 20 cases in a row. If that's the right thing to do, we do it. We also serve as persuasive voice to the legislature. Statute 112 (commonly referred to as the Officer's Bill of Rights) needs to be changed because it makes it difficult for police departments to fire bad cops. I will advocate for this change.

Death Penalty
My personal opinion is that the death penalty has no value. A life sentence means the person will die in prison. The death penalty is only about the manner in which they die. It's clear it doesn't act as a deterrent for people to commit murder and it also brings no closure to the family members of the victim because of endless appeals. However, I realize it's the law and I will follow the law. As the only candidate who has prosecuted a death penalty case and served on the death penalty review board, I know the board is the right way to handle the death penalty. I believe, when dealing with someone's life, more proseptives and opinions are much better than the thoughts of one person. This decision shouldn't be based on ego, it should be based on facts.

Corruption
I am going to establish a Government Accountability Unit which will be a specialized unit designed to go after government corruption. I am going to recruit attorneys and investigators who have the skill set to "follow the money" because we all know that money is almost always the reason behind corruption. Personally, I prefer to prosecute rapists and murderers. If I had to go through boxes of bank records I would want to jump out my office window. But there are people who are passionate about financial crimes and I'm going to get them working for the citizens of Orange and Osceola counties.

I will not send Sunshine Law complaints to FDLE. It's futile to do so because FDLE won't investigate misdemeanors. I believe any and all corruption harms our citizens and trust in the government, so I will send these complaints to my unit to fully investigate and prosecute when appropriate.

Prosecutorial Experience
Prosecutorial experience is critical. No one wants to work for someone who has never done their job. Assistant State Attorneys have tremendous power and face issues that are unique to being a prosecutor. If you have never done the job, you are not qualified to lead 160 prosecutors. It would be as if someone watched a few episodes of Gray's Anatomy and then decided to perform surgery. It's just dangerous.

I have been a prosecutor for 17 years and have prosecuted every type of case from misdemeanors to the death penalty. I have won over 100 trials. Some cases of note: I have personally convicted 43 child molestors and rapists at trial, I successfully prosecuted a politician for bribery, and I am responsible for the first life sentence in Florida for a sex trafficker who was trafficking a minor.

Drug Prosecution
The State Attorney can't control who the police arrest, but we can immediately drop the cases when we don't feel the arrest was appropriate.

Currently, we cannot prosecute low-level amounts of marijuana. The lab at FDLE cannot tell the difference between marijuana (illegal) and hemp (legal) with their testing capabilities. As a result, we do not prosecute for marijuana. However, even if the testing was accurate, I believe possession of marijuana should be a civil citation (not criminal) until the legislature changes the law and makes it legal. Possessing marijuana should not be illegal. Our legislatures need to change the law.

Monique Worrell, former head of the 9th Circuit state attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, and current lead attorney for a national justice-reform group - PHOTO COURTESY MONIQUE WORRELL CAMPAIGN
  • Photo courtesy Monique Worrell campaign
  • Monique Worrell, former head of the 9th Circuit state attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, and current lead attorney for a national justice-reform group

Monique Worrell

Police Accountability 
As the next State Attorney, I will begin prosecuting police officers at the first instances of misconduct, such as assault, battery, planting evidence, or falsifying statements. Additionally, I am committed to releasing the office's Brady Alert List, commonly referred to as the "do-not-call" list. 

Furthermore, without acknowledging and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, we are not fully and effectively addressing the issue of police accountability. I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement and believe it is the responsibility of every elected official to not only understand the changes the movement is calling for, but also owning the responsibility of incorporating those changes into each of our offices.

With the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of my focus, along with principals of equality, equity and fairness, under my leadership the State Attorney's office will presumptively not rely on testimony from any officer who:

  1. Has made racist, xenophobic, or sexist comments with witnesses or on social media;
  2. Has engaged in criminal conduct involving deceit or untruthfulness;
  3. Is the subject of an on-going criminal investigation;
  4. Has improperly manipulated or planted evidence;
  5. Has a history of repeatedly failing to activate a body camera following department policy, particularly in cases where a person has been injured or alleged their rights were violated;
  6. Has intentionally engaged in untruthfulness or deception regarding facts in a report, statement, or testimony at a hearing or other official proceeding or investigation; or
  7. Has intentionally engaged in untruthfulness concerning the on-duty conduct of the officer or others.

Drug Prosecution
I plan to eliminate the incarceration for minor drug crimes, such as possession of marijuana. Additionally, I believe that it is time to end the "war on drugs" narrative and begin looking to alternate sentencing to address addiction head-on.

History shows us that we cannot incarcerate our way out of addiction. Ninety-five percent of incarcerated addicts will return to substance abuse after their release from prison. Sixty to eighty percent of them will commit new crimes, and others will either develop or continue an addiction while in prison due to access to smuggled drugs. Looking specifically at Orange and Osceola counties over the past two years, the 9th Circuit State Attorney's Office has sent nearly 549 non-violent offenders convicted of drug-related offenses to more than 2300 years of prison time plus one life sentence. Meaning, using our current approach, we have potentially created 549 more dangerous offenders with more substantial substance addictions.

Without treatment that addresses the real issues, offenders often end up caught in a cycle of substance abuse, crime, and incarceration. Continuing to perpetuate this cycle does not make victims whole, address the cause of the crime committed, or make our community safer. My solution is to incorporate rehabilitation programs and services in place of a prison sentence, when appropriate, using incarceration as an absolute last resort.

Death Penalty
I personally do not support the death penalty. In this country, we have gotten it wrong far too often. Nationwide, we have sentenced 1,414 individuals to death since 1976, only to later exonerate 156 of them. That means nationwide, we have gotten it wrong at 11% of the time. Looking at Florida specifically, we are the worst in the country, with the highest exoneration rate. In Florida alone, we have sentenced 99 people to death since 1976 and out of those 99 people, 29 of them have been exonerated. This means that Florida alone is functioning on a 29% failure rate regarding the death penalty.

I am aware that the death penalty is the mandatory maximum in this State, so in order to combat such an abysmal failure rate, my office will implement and expand the death penalty review board. The review board will consist of prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys from sister counties to avoid conflicts of interest, and community members. The death penalty review board will hear justifying evidence from the prosecutor on the case as well as mitigating evidence from the defense attorney. The review board will submit their recommendation to me, and ultimately, I will make the final decision whether to seek the death penalty on a case-by-case basis.

Corruption
In my office, we will make sure that no one is above the law. Just as we desire officers who harm the public's trust to be held accountable, so will those who prey on workers, who harm our waters, and who undermine our electoral process. Additionally, if there are instances where I believe that a Sunshine Law complaint would be more appropriately handled by the FDLE; for instance, if a conflict of interest presents, I would send those cases to FDLE. However, when dealing with Sunshine Law violations by local officials that directly impact our community members, I feel that it is imperative that the State Attorney’s office handles those matters in our own backyard. I do not believe in a “pass the buck” mentality.

Prosecutorial Experience
I think the two most important qualifications a State Attorney can possess are: 1) trial experience; and 2) a 360-degree view of our criminal legal system. I happen to possess both. I have been a trial attorney for twenty years. Additionally, I was a criminal clinic law professor.This means that I trained future lawyers on how to build their cases and litigate cases in real courtrooms with real cases. After seventeen years of being a practicing criminal defense trial lawyer and law professor, I decided to become a prosecutor in the 9th Judicial Circuit under Aramis Ayala, in order to develop and lead the conviction integrity unit. Under Ayala's leadership, I worked to uncover and correct decades of wrongful convictions that have happened in this circuit. I am proud of the fact that I have never prosecuted a case within the current culture of prosecution. I am equally proud to say I am the most well-rounded candidate in this race, having served both on the defense and in the State Attorney’s office. In order to create needed systemic change within our legal system, we must have a State Attorney that not only understands how to try a case, but is also intimately aware of the social issues that overshadow the integrity of our legal system.

Systemic Racism
As I have previously mentioned, without acknowledging and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, we are not fully and effectively addressing the issue of police accountability or rectifying the downfalls of our legal system. I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement and believe it is the responsibility of every elected official to not only understand the changes the movement is calling for, but also owning the responsibility of incorporating those changes into each of our offices. It is a fact that Black and Brown people receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts. It is also a fact that poverty is a driving cause of crime, for which Black and Brown communities have disproportionately bared the brunt of in this country since its inception. With all of this in mind, as the next State Attorney, I fully intend to implement a holistic approach to the criminal justice system, focusing on rehabilitation over punishment in all appropriate cases, reserving incarceration as the absolute last resort. I vow to make these implementations for all individuals while also keeping in mind that there is a dire need for equity within our system when it comes to Black and Brown communities.

Belvin Perry Jr., a former prosecutor and the 9th Circuit's former chief judge - PHOTO COURTESY BELVIN PERRY JR. CAMPAIGN
  • Photo courtesy Belvin Perry Jr. campaign
  • Belvin Perry Jr., a former prosecutor and the 9th Circuit's former chief judge

Belvin Perry Jr.

Corruption Cases
Under the laws of the State of Florida, the State Attorney is constitutionally charged with the responsibility of prosecuting all violations of the law. Under my administration, public corruption crimes will be investigated and prosecuted by my Special Prosecution Unit. Complex financial crimes will also be handled by that unit.

The Sunshine Law Complaints will still be handled by FDLE until there are adequate resources in place to staff a full time unit in State Attorney Office. If additional information is needed to supplement Sunshine Law Complaints investigation then we would use our very limited in house investigators. The success of any office is depended upon adequate funding by the State of Florida.

Prosecutorial Experience
A State Attorney must be someone with criminal trial experience, administrative experience, management experience including budget management, experience in working with the other branches of government, building relationship within the community and the criminal justice community. I have prosecuted every type of criminal case, including murder as an Assistant State Attorney for twelve years. I rose through the ranks of the State Attorney's office to become the Chief Assistant State Attorney. As Chief Assistant State Attorney I managed the day to day operations of the office, including but not to limited to the hiring, budget management and the trying of the most infamous case on behalf of the State of Florida. 

I served as Chief Judge of this circuit for eighteen of my twenty-five years on the bench. As Chief Judge, I managed the third largest court system in the State of Florida with over two-hundred plus employees and sixty-five judges. The two county circuits had combined budgets of approximately $30 million dollars. As Chief Judge, I oversaw advances in technology and improved services for victims of crime. I was appointed by the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court to head up the Florida Innocence Commission that studied the causes of wrongful convictions and made recommendations to avoid wrongful convictions. I led the crusade and initiatives to stop the cycles of crime, poverty and wasted tax dollars by working with programs that dealt with homelessness, the mentally ill and struggling veterans.

I served on the Trial Court Budget Commission from its creation until my retirement. I also served as Chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission for four years, appointed by two Chief Justices of the Florida Supreme Court. The Trial Court Budget Commission ("TCBC") was charged with the responsibility of managing and allocating the $200 million budget of the Trial Courts of Florida. I also served on the lobbying team of the TCBC.

Death Penalty
In case that meet the statutory requirements, I will seek the death penalty.

Police Accountability
I firmly believe in the principle that “no one is above the law” and any citizen, including law enforcement officers who violate the law will be held accountable. I will require that all witnesses be screened per the dictates of Brady v Maryland and Giglio v United States and my office will identify witnesses, including police officers, who have sustained incidents of untruthfulness, candor issues or some other type of issue placing their credibility into question. I will work with law enforcement to help identify those officers.

Systemic Racism
The State Attorney is also charged with the responsibility to make sure that the system is fair and colorblind in terms of prosecution. The State Attorney must ensure that his staff are trained and re-trained in implicit bias in terms of race and keep detailed data to make sure that the office is bias free. The State Attorney must also hold officers who are guilty of misconduct accountable. The State Attorney must also keep data on the use of excessive force to track patterns to ensure that this conduct is identified early and remedied.

Yes, I believe we must end systemic racism, gun violence and police brutality against African Americans. It is role of the State Attorney to be the voice against racism, gun violence and police brutality and to prosecute those who violate the law.

Drug Prosecution
The Office of State Attorney does not have the power to dictate to law enforcement whether or not to make an arrest for crimes. Currently, possession of marijuana is not being prosecuted because there is no test available to distinguish between legal cannabis and illegal cannabis. I would encourage law enforcement to use notices to appear for minor drug offenses as opposed to the use of arrest powers. Most cases of minor drug offenses can be handled by diversion programs.

Ryan Williams, a prosecutor handling death penalty cases in the neighboring 5th Circuit - PHOTO COURTESY RYAN WILLIAMS CAMPAIGN
  • Photo courtesy Ryan Williams campaign
  • Ryan Williams, a prosecutor handling death penalty cases in the neighboring 5th Circuit

Ryan Williams

Death Penalty
My personal position is that the death penalty is appropriate in some rare circumstances when called for by the law. The law in Florida, reaffirmed by the Florida Supreme Court in its decision in Ayala v. Scott, is that an elected State Attorney must at least consider seeking the death penalty in those circumstances and cases where it might be appropriate for First Degree Murder. I plan to seek the death penalty in accordance with our laws and in those rare circumstances where multiple aggravating factors are present and can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This means only that a jury comprised of a fair cross-section of our community will be permitted to recommend this penalty to an elected, circuit court judge if there is a conviction for murder. However, I am exceptionally cognizant of Florida's capacity for getting these decisions wrong and for the disparate use of this punishment on Black and brown members of our community. I will use that awareness to ensure we do not make the same mistakes going forward regardless of public sentiment.

Prosecutorial Experience
Prosecutorial experience is vital to the success of a State Attorney, so much so that I believe it would be very difficult to have success as the elected state attorney without this experience. The elected State Attorney will lead more than 160 prosecutors who will look for him or her to set the standard for their behavior in and out of the courtroom, legally and ethically. While it is possible for someone with no prosecutorial experience to establish and communicate a standard, those prosecutors – who are underpaid, overworked, and difficult to retain – are much less likely to follow a leader who cannot empathize with struggles that come with their role. The office and the demands on prosecutors need leadership by example. Beyond leadership, innovation and solving the problems confronting our criminal justice system, including reforming it to make it more fair, call for an understanding of the role of the prosecutor and how that role interacts with our components of that system. That understanding will inform the State Attorney on what works and what does not and what alternatives exist.

I am the most experienced courtroom prosecutor amongst all of the candidates, having tried more than 160 cases to a jury in my career that includes more than 30 murder trials and 30 cases involving sex crimes and child abuse. I have handled the most serious and high-profile cases in Orange and Osceola County and done so not just with success, but with integrity and professionalism. My work in the courtroom will set the standard for the office, but so will my management experience as the Intake Bureau Chief responsible for overhauling the way the office receives and charges cases. I have worked with recent success in both trying cases and managing the apparatus of the office and I believe I am the only candidate who can say that.

Public Corruption
I would treat public corruption and financial crimes different, recognizing that some public corruption cases have a financial component. I will assign public corruption cases to our most experienced and talented prosecutors to ensure they are handled properly and given the attention they deserve. Corrupt acts by elected or other government officials strike at the heart of the public’s confidence in government and therefore must be taken seriously. Public officials who commit such crimes must be held accountable so that the public can have faith that no one is above the law and that our system of justice is applied equally. I am aware that at least one of the other candidates running has proposed a specific unit for dealing with such crimes, and I support that idea. I am unwilling, however, to commit a specific prosecutor or two entirely to such a unit at this time knowing the lack of experience currently in the office due to massive turnover and that doing so would remove resources from prosecuting violent offenses. Over time, however, and with effort, it is my full intention to create such a unit.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is often the organization assigned to investigate public corruption. Given their independent status I think this is often a wise decision and see no need to change that, understanding that our team of investigators at the State Attorney’s Office would work with them to supplement that investigation as necessary. However, my intention would be to handle the prosecutions out of our local office and not send them to other jurisdictions. The current State Attorney has, too often in my opinion, sent very important investigations of local officials and incidents to other State Attorney’s in Florida. These other jurisdictions have incentives not to go forward with difficult prosecutions and no electorate to hold them accountable for not doing so. I would make sure that the Ninth Circuit handles these prosecutions locally, including Sunshine Law complaints.

Systemic Racism
I believe black lives matter and that the Black Lives Matter movement has been an affirmative good for our nation and community. This movement has brought and focused attention on the inequities of our criminal justice system and, equally importantly, the injustices of policing and police tactics that should have changed long ago.

An administration I lead as State Attorney will be focused on enacting the meaningful reforms within our role to attack and address systemic racism. Bail reform and moving towards the elimination of cash bond will be a priority but will take time due to the need to cooperate with county officials and legislators to obtain the funds we need to monitor those arrested in a pre-trial setting without incarcerating them. We will immediately begin expanding our diversionary programs, including diverting traffic cases and making non-prosecution of more third-degree, non-violent felonies a reality to reduce incarceration rates locally and across the state. We will also begin quickly working with the law enforcement agencies that staff school resource officers in our schools to establish policies prohibiting arrest in all but those cases where a child poses a danger of immediate physical harm to others in order to start to demolish the school-to-prison pipeline.

Drug Prosecution
The State Attorney’s Office does not make arrests—law enforcement does. I am committed, however, as State Attorney to working with law enforcement to de-emphasize arrests for minor drug offenses like what is currently misdemeanor possession of marijuana. I believe we need to treat addiction like the medical condition it is and stop criminalizing it. It is my view that making arrests for, and prosecuting, these crimes unnecessarily pulls people into our criminal justice system that do not need to be there. However, I cannot promise not to prosecute these crimes or to set a “threshold” amount of a substance below which we will not prosecute because that would be a clear statement of intent to not follow the law. The Florida Supreme Court has made it clear that the Governor is within his rights to remove or possibly suspend an elected State Attorney who takes a stance that he or she will not follow or enforce a class of laws. Thus, I will fulfill my legal obligation while enacting policies and voicing support that de-emphasize these crimes and their prosecution.

Police Accountability
The first, obvious step of accountability is criminal prosecution for behavior, under the color of their authority, that officers or deputies engage in. A willingness to criminal prosecute excessive uses of force demonstrates to the public and law enforcement that no one is above the law and that there is in fact police accountability. My record as a prosecutor includes the prosecution of three separate police officers, two of whom were charged with criminal battery for excessive use of force. I have held officers accountable and will continue to do so. Criminal charges when appropriate, however, are not enough. We need increased transparency. I have proposed building, maintaining, and publishing use of force data for the law enforcement agencies and officers in our circuit so that the public can see who is using force, on whom, and where it is occurring. Finally, I would continue the use of the “Brady Alert List” for ethically compromised officers. However, I want more transparency for both the law enforcement officers involved, their agencies, their agency heads, and the public for what led to an officer being included on that list. I also believe the officer deserves the opportunity to be heard before the decision-making body. I will, however, continue the list and pledge to make it public.

This story appears in the Aug. 12, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters.

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