The administration of capital punishment in Florida has been at the mercy of activist judges for so long now that people can be forgiven for forgetting the Sunshine State actually has the death penalty.
The last Death Row inmate to fulfill his sentence, Oscar Ray Bolin, was executed in January 2016 — an atypical time lag under Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has ordered 23 executions since taking office in January 2011 — or fully 25 percent of the 92 carried out since capital punishment was reintroduced in Florida 38 years ago.
We can thank Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala, the top prosecutor for nearby Orange and Osceola counties, for reminding us the death penalty remains with us. And she did so in an ironic way: by publicly stating she would never seek the death penalty in any first-degree murder case prosecuted by her office.
"What has become abundantly clear through this process is that while I do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice," Ayala said at a press conference last week. “Florida’s death penalty has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil.”
She cited the cost and length of such cases and capital punishment’s ineffectiveness as a deterrent as part of the reason for her position. But Ayala, who last year became the first black person to be elected state attorney in Florida, also believes the process is tilted against black defendants.
Her announcement touched off a firestorm, as might be expected.
On one hand, Ayala was showered with praise by civil liberties groups and civil rights leaders for standing up against a system of punishment that they maintain is biased toward blacks.
On the other hand, criticism rained down from law enforcement officials, tough-on-crime types like Attorney General Pam Bondi as well as Gov. Scott, who stripped Ayala of the Markeith Loyd case. Loyd is accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend last December and subsequently killing Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton during a manhunt that lasted for a week and spilled over into Polk County.
Ayala has announced that she will fight her removal from the Loyd case.
The Orlando Sentinel reported recently that Ayala coyly chose not to discuss her views on the death penalty during last year’s Democratic primary, in which she upset scandal-tarred incumbent State Attorney Jeff Ashton.
While she certainly is entitled to her opinions, it’s a shame Ayala, who had been a public defender for eight years before being elected as state attorney, was not candid with voters about her views last year. This is an issue they could, and should, have adjudicated through the political process.
Ayala foreshadowed her announcement last month during a debate with Ninth Circuit Public Defender Bob Wesley. She called her office’s handling of death penalty cases “broken,” and said she was working on some unspecified reforms. Oddly, according to news accounts, Wesley challenged Ayala’s assertion, maintaining that the pursuit of death penalty cases in Orlando had been “very, very rational,” and not done “randomly or capriciously.”
Another oddity is that Ayala’s pronouncement came shortly after Scott signed a bill requiring juries in death penalty cases to hand down unanimous verdicts in sentencing convicted killers. That was done after more than a year of judges — from the U.S. Supreme Court all the way to South Florida trial courts — repeatedly rejecting Florida’s methodology.
The new law, the Legislature’s second attempt to appease a U.S. Supreme Court decision, may not make capital punishment obsolete, but it likely will ensure that it is exercised far less frequently than Floridians are accustomed to.
Ayala says she has the discretion to pursue the death penalty, and we can agree to some extent with her assessment of its merits. Bolin, for example, went 30 years after he murdered three Tampa-area women before completing his sentence. And Floridians certainly have not ceased killing each other since 1979.
Yet Ayala also has a duty to follow the laws of Florida — and the death penalty remains the law in Florida. After her announcement, Florida’s other 19 state attorneys issued a statement through their professional association saying that enforcing those laws is “paramount to our oath of office." "The victims' families of Florida deserve our dedication to implement all the laws of Florida,” the statement said. “That is why the people of Florida have elected us."
Well said. Ayala’s arrogant posturing has done a terrible disservice to the families of Orlando-area murder victims — whose cases are pending or those in the future — who disagree with her. Given Loyd's case, it also makes her condemnation last year of the cop killers in Dallas and Baton Rouge ring hollow.
If she wants to affect public policy this way, and not abide her oath to execute our state’s laws, she should step aside and work on changing the law from the inside as a member of the Legislature.