• Ayala Won't Seek 29 Death-Penalty Cases Back in Orange-Osceola Counties
  • September 25, 2017
  • The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday declined to return 29 death penalty cases Gov. Rick Scott took away from Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala Thursday, who had refused to pursue the death penalty against anyone.

    “Crimes like these are pure evil and deserve the absolute full consideration of punishment – something that State Attorney Ayala completely ruled out,” Scott said in a statement. “She unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening. In Florida, we hold criminals fully accountable for the crimes they commit – especially those that attack our law-enforcement community and innocent children.”

    Hours later, Ayala announced a panel of seven yet-unnamed assistant state attorneys who will look at future first-degree murder cases that may be eligible for the death penalty in Orange and Osceola counties. Ayala’s spokeswoman, Eryka Washington, declined to say whether the death penalty will again be an option but said they will not seek to get the 29 cases back at this time.

    “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. She will introduce the attorneys at a press conference Friday morning.

    A governor’s spokeswoman declined to say whether he will still transfer future cases to a different prosecutor, saying that Scott had no other details about the panel save for a short statement released to reporters.

    “State Attorney Ayala needs to make it clear that her office will seek the death penalty as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate,” said John Tupps, a governor’s spokesman. “State Attorney Ayala’s statement today leaves too much room for interpretation.”

    Thursday’s Supreme Court opinion sided with Scott by a count of 5-2. Supreme Court Justice C. Alan Lawson, writing the majority opinion, rejected Ayala’s argument of prosecutorial discretion.

    “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,” Lawson wrote. “… Ayala’s blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case, including a case that ‘absolutely deserve[s] [the] death penalty’ does not reflect an exercise of prosecutorial discretion; it embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law.”

    The next steps in a pending federal lawsuit will depend on how Scott will treat her decision to establish the panel, said her attorney, Roy Austin, Jr.

    Ayala, who took office in January, announced March 16 that she will not seek the death penalty for anyone as the region’s top prosecutor. She said research showed the death penalty was unevenly applied, put families through decades-long ordeals, and did not deter serious crimes, among other reasons.

    She did not publicly express any opinions about the death penalty during her campaign, in which she defeated incumbent State Attorney Jeff Ashton in an August 2016 primary open only to registered Democrats. Ayala did not face general-election opposition on the November ballot.

    Scott responded to her March announcement by signing executive orders taking death penalty cases away from her office and assigning them to State Attorney Brad King of Ocala, starting with the case of Markeith Loyd, accused of first-degree murder in the killings of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and an Orlando police office, Lt. Debra Clayton.

    Among those who lauded Thursday’s court decision were Orlando Police Chief John Mina, who said Loyd’s crimes “are the very reason we have the death penalty as an option under the law,” and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who said Ayala’s "unconscionable decision to never seek the death penalty will not be tolerated."

    Civil-rights attorney Shayan Elahi, who wrote a brief in support of Ayala’s position this spring, said the court’s decision deals a blow to prosecutorial discretion — the idea that state attorneys should be able to decide how to pursue their cases independently and without political interference. Placing more power with the governor may open the door to future meddling with criminal cases, he said.

    “This doesn’t just do damage to the scope of prosecutorial discretion and the principal of it, but to the democratic process,” Elahi said.

    Justice Barbara Pariente cited similar principals in her dissent, with which Justice Peggy Quince concurred.

    “State Attorney Ayala’s decision was well within the scheme created by the Legislature and within the scope of decisions State Attorneys make every day on how to allocate their offices’ limited resources,” Pariente wrote. “… The governor’s decision in this case fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of duly elected State Attorneys.”

    Since March, Scott has reassigned 29 cases from Ayala to King. Two have gone to trial under King with the help of prosecutors from Ayala’s office who had already been working on them: Juan Rosario of Orange County, who robbed 83-year-old Elena Ortega’s home, beat her with a blunt object, and set fires in her house; and Larry Perry of St. Cloud, who killed his infant son Ayden when he would not stop crying.

    Jurors found both men guilty of first-degree murder and unanimously recommended the death penalty for both. Neither has been formally sentenced.

    Ayala filed two lawsuits in April, one with the Supreme Court of Florida and one in federal court. In the Supreme Court case, Ayala asked justices to determine whether Scott has the legal authority to reassign the cases.

    The federal case hinges on Scott’s reaction on the panel, according to Ayala’s Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Austin.

    Scott used the state’s solicitor general to represent him in the suit.

    Dan Gerber, an Orlando attorney who represented the families of murder victims in a legal brief this spring, said the decision lets families have a meaningful say in the process that a catch-all policy would not allow.

    “The unfortunate reality is that there will be future family members who could be faced with an ultimate decision maker who has shown extraordinary prejudgment against them,” Gerber said.