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If Aramis Ayala had been in Denver, people might have shrugged

In January, when she took office, new Denver District Attorney Beth McCann reaffirmed her campaign promise on an extraordinary policy: There would be no death penalty cases in her district under her watch.

The reaction?

Virtually nothing. No expressions of shock or outrage from other politicians, no calls for cases to be stripped from her, no calls for her firing, suspension or resignation.

“I think our community is a lot different from Orlando,” McCann said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.

Indeed, Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala became something of a political pariah a week ago when she made a similar pronouncement for her Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, with most Republicans and a few Democrats blasting her and many calling for her ouster. And while Ayala is getting some support for Democrats for her right to decide how to prosecute her cases, she’s not finding much political support explicitly for her no-death penalty position.

Nationally, the latest annual tracking poll by Gallup, in late 2016, found that 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty and 37 percent oppose. That’s the closet gap since Richard Nixon‘s first term as president, but still a solid majority in support. A Pew tracking poll shows identical trend lines, though a much tighter gap in 2016 – 49 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed. But again, death penalty wins.

Yet region by region, state by state, sometimes even district by district, there may be no across-the-board pattern, and nothing to suggest that the blowback Ayala is getting in Florida and Central Florida is at all common.

The last two district attorneys in San Francisco have disavowed and not used the death penalty. That’s a liberal political bastion; but now two district attorneys in Birmingham, Ala., have won election and entered office after personally disavowing the death penalty, though neither has ruled it out entirely for extraordinary cases.

One key difference between Ayala and McCann – both Democrats – is that McCann campaigned on a no death penalty promise. But it wasn’t that hard for her to do. Two of three candidates took that position. There hasn’t been an execution in Colorado in 12 years, and statewide there are only three people on death row. Her predecessor in Denver tried just one death penalty case in five years, and lost on the capital punishment counts.

Even Aurora, Colo., movie theater mass murderer James Holmes – tried in the neighboring Arapahoe County – was given life in prison without parole, after being convicted of murdering 12 people and attempting to murder 70 others.

McCann watched with interest everything Ayala said, and everything that has happened since. She found herself agreeing with all of Ayala’s reasonings, and “very troubled” by the political reactions, particularly when Gov. Rick Scott reassigned the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd to another state attorney. But McCann also conceded it’s all outside her experience, and cautioned that Ayala will have to reconcile with local opinion.

“I think it’s the climate in our state. In Denver, politically, the death penalty is not very popular,” McCann said. “So it’s a very different situation.”

So how is it in Florida? Polling is all over the place. Polls by the Palm Beach Post and by Public Policy Polling both found majorities preferring life imprisonment without parole – Ayala’s position. But polls that have asked if people support the death penalty have shown majorities saying yes.

That leads Robert J. Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project, a death penalty opposition group based at Harvard University, to argue that people do not support the death penalty as much as politicians – in any political party – think that people do.

The biggest indicator, Smith argues, is that the actual use of the death penalty has plummeted in the past two decades, nationally and in Florida, both in terms of sentences and executions. At least in practice, prosecutors, judges, and most importantly, juries, are just not that into it anymore, he suggested.

“In the 1990s, there were 315 death sentences in 1994 and 1996. Last year in America there were 30,” Smith said. “So you have a nation of 320 million people, there were 15,000 homicides, and you had 30 death sentences in the last year.”

Texas, once one of the execution leaders of the world, with upwards of 40 death sentences a year, saw just three death sentences handed down last year, Smith said. Neither Dallas nor Houston (Harris County) have had one in more than two years, he added.

In Ayala’s circuit, under her predecessors Jeff Ashton and Lawson Lamar, there was one death sentence in Orange County and none in Osceola County in the five-year period between 2012 and 2016, Smith said.

“I think you’re going to see that politics is going to change… going to catch up to that,” he said.

Orlando activists urge Republicans to reform, not replace ACA

Calling attention to the potential of lost health insurance benefits to disabled, young, low-income and other people under the proposed American Health Care Act, a coalition of mostly progressive political activists asked Central Floridians to urge members of Congress to reform, not replace the Affordable Care Act.

Their call, outside the Orlando offices of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, was explicitly aimed at Rubio and at Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge, whose Congressional District 8 includes a portion of east Orange County.

Their message included acknowledgment that the Affordable Care Act has problems, but they called for Republicans to consider fixing the problems, rather than throwing it out and replacing it with the American Health Care Act.

“Today marks the seventh anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, the day we made history,” said Anna Eskamani, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “We know the Affordable Care Act needs improvements. We also understand it has expanded care for millions of Americans, and Floridians. Florida, despite political opposition, being one of the most successful states in enrollment numbers.”

Sara Isaac, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County urged lawmakers “to think about the impact this will have on all of us, especially those with the least resources among us.

“The league, while acknowledging that ObamaCare is not perfect, it has improved the lives of many Americans who have more access to health care, and this legislation is not an improvement but it is a huge step back,” she said.

Besides arguing for the needs of disabled people for affordable health insurance, Tiffany Namey, chair of the Orange County Democratic Disability Caucus, also cited numbers for the increased in coverage for minorities, people with HIV.

“Your quality of your health care is likely to go down,” she predicted. “Emergency rooms will go back to playing a critical role in America’s health care system by serving low-income and uninsured regardless of their ability to pay. However, our government will no longer reimburse the hospitals through Low-Income Pool funding. This will inevitably bring wide-spread layoffs, cause cuts in outpatient services and services for the mentally ill, and cause hospital closings.”

Puerto Rican alliance protests austerity measures on island

Insisting that the people on Puerto Rico can endure no more austerity measures, a coalition of Puerto Rican, labor, and religious groups marched in Kissimmee Wednesday to protest the federal plan being pushed to resolve the commonwealth’s debt crisis.

“Puerto Rico Stands at the edge of a precipice,” declared Wanda Ramos, a leader of the Vamos 4 Puerto Rico, which led the march. “The fate of its economy is being decided by the oversight board, an unelected body set up by Congress in 2016 that has been carrying out its business largely out of the public eye, and in the heart of Wall Street.”

The Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board last week outlined a series of austerity measures aimed at helping the government dig its way out of a $72 billion debt. But the measures would come to an island where the economy has been largely collapsing in the past couple of years with large cutbacks in public services from schools and hospitals to police and fire protection to utilities, high unemployment and poverty rates and a flood of people fleeing the island, many to Florida.

Ramos declared that the oversight board is interested in the financial crisis to hedge funds and not interested in the humanitarian crisis of the islanders.

Kissimmee is becoming the heart of Central Florida’s Puerto Rican population, and the protest march stopped in front of the Puerto Rican Government’s Federal Affairs Administration Office for Florida.

There, protesters charged that the oversight board is too heavily influenced by Wall Street hedge funds that hold much of the Puerto Rico debt and too little by anyone interested in the welfare of the islanders. They called on Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello to reject the austerity measures being pushed by Washington, and to reestablish an independent audit commission he disbanded early this year.

Similar rallies were held in Boston, New York, Hartford, Chicago, Seattle, and San Juan, P.R., Wednesday, which is the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873.

In addition to Ramos, the speakers included two Roman Catholic priests, teachers who left the island, and representatives of several labor unions.

New prosecutor says old prosecutor shouldn’t get case back

A prosecutor who was given a case involving a police officer’s murder by Florida’s governor after the original prosecutor said her office would no longer seek the death penalty says the original prosecutor has no authority to ask for the case back.

Gov. Rick Scott gave the case against Markeith Loyd to State Attorney Brad King after State Attorney Aramis Ayala said she would no longer seek the death penalty. She now says Scott overstepped his authority.

King filed a motion Wednesday seeking the dismissal of Ayala’s request for a judge to hear arguments about why she shouldn’t have had the case taken from her.

Loyd is charged with first-degree murder in the killings of his ex-girlfriend and Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Linda Stewart pushing ‘Orlando United’ specialty license plate

State Sen. Linda Stewart is pushing the creation of an “Orlando United” specialty license plate to commemorate the city’s unity in the wake of last summer’s Pulse nightclub massacre, and to raise funds for mental health organizations.

Stewart, the Orlando Democrat who introduced Senate Bill 1232, will get her first chance to present it today in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill designates three organizations to receive proceeds: The Mental Health Association of Central Florida, the Hispanic Federation, and Two Spirit Health Services Inc. All three provide mental health services, with Two Spirit focusing principally on Orlando’s LGBT community.

On June 12, madman Omar Mateen shot up the popular Orlando gay nightclub Pulse during a Hispanic night, killing 49 and wounding 53, and forever changing Orlando.

Stewart, long a supporter of improving mental health services, called SB 1232 “a happy bill that might actually help.”

If the bill passes and gets signed, at least 1,000 Orlando United plates would have to be ordered before they are produced.

Orange County Democratic Party unanimously backs Aramis Ayala

The Orange County Democratic Party announced late Tuesday its executive committee has unanimously backed Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s decision to not pursue the death penalty in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit.

Orange County Democratic Chairman Wes Hodge said more than 200 people attended the Monday night meeting at which the committee passed two resolutions; one supporting Ayala’s prosecutorial discretion and urging Gov. Rick Scott to rescind his executive order stripping her of the Markeith Loyd case; and one condemning comments from a Seminole County Clerk of Courts official who called for her to be hung from a tree, and calling for his firing.

Hodge said there was considerable discussion but no objections to the resolutions.

The Orange Democrats took the positions following two other developments from Democratic groups supporting Ayala, a Democrat. Earlier Monday the Florida Democratic Progressive Caucus also approved a resolution supporting her, and earlier the Orange County Black Democratic Caucus announced its support.

“When she held her press conference [last Thursday] she was very deliberate in making her case in supporting her beliefs, and why she didn’t think the death penalty was an effective deterrent. That’s what you would expect from a well-seasoned attorney,” Hodge said. “Personally, I do agree that it has been proven that the death penalty is not a deterrent.”

The party’s resolution, however, offers support explicitly for her and her authority to decide what to do with death penalty cases, and does not render any explicit opposition to or support for death penalties. The party is split on that, with Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings supporting the death penalty, as is state Sen. Victor Torres, a retired police detective.

Yet the Orange Democrats’ call has not reached the pitch of opponents and critics of Ayala, principally Republicans, from Scott and State Attorney General Pam Bondi, to numerous lawmakers including Central Florida state Reps. Bob Cortes, who called for her removal; Scott Plakon, who is looking at funding for her office; and Mike Miller and Rene Plasencia, who, with Cortes, called a press conference to condemn her.

Hodge expressed frustration that Ayala is being portrayed as someone accepting of crime including the murders  charged to Loyd, which he called reprehensible, when she, in his view, is being realistic about seeking the surest and shortest route to justice.

All three Democratic groups called for Scott to lay off.

“We view this as a politically-motivated action gearing up for his next election,” Hodge said in a statement that echoed that of the progressive caucus. “His executive order infringes on the independence of state’s attorneys, exceeds his authority as governor, establishes a dangerous precedent, and undermines the will of the voters of Orange and Osceola counties.”

Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida backs Aramis Ayala

Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala has gotten her first significant backing from within her own party, with a resolution supporting her and her actions from the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.

The group announced Tuesday it has passed a resolution expressing “its support for Aramis Ayala’s right to exercise her prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether or not to pursue the death penalty in any case, and calls upon Governor Rick Scott to immediately rescind his Executive Order removing Aramis Ayala from the Markeith Lloyd case.”

The resolution, which was adopted over the weekend but not disclosed until Tuesday, declares that Scott’s executive order last week stripping the Loyd murder case from Ayala and reassigning it to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King was a “cynical and politically-motivated action, which infringes on the independence of prosecutors, exceeds his authority, sets a dangerous precedent; and undermines the right of the residents of Orange and Osceola counties to elect their own prosecutor.”

Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties, announced last Thursday she would not pursue death penalty charges against anyone in the circuit, preferring to seek life imprisonment without parole, and arguing that death penalty cases’ tendencies to drag on for decades were unjust for all, including families of victims. Scott swiftly responded by reassigning the case of Loyd, charged with murdering his pregnant former girlfriend Sade Dixon and Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton.

Ayala, a Democrat, has drawn strong, often angry responses from other politicians besides Scott, including several Central Florida lawmakers. On Monday Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes called for Scott to suspend her from office, and from Democratic state Sen. Victor Torres, a retired police detective, who supported Scott’s reassignment of the Loyd case. Few other Democrats have spoken up until now.

“State’s Attorney Ayala was duly elected by the citizens of the Ninth Judicial Circuit. She must be allowed to use her discretion in cases without interference from the governor. Rick Scott is overstepping his authority.” Democratic Progressive Caucus President Susan Smith stated in a news release announcing the group’s resolution.

Bob Cortes calls for Rick Scott to suspend Aramis Ayala, reassign all her capital cases

Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes called late Monday for Gov. Rick Scott to reassign all potential death penalty cases under the jurisdiction of State Attorney Aramis Ayala and to suspend her from office.

Cortes, who was among the first critics of Ayala’s “no death penalty” policy announced last week, said in a letter to Scott on Monday that he has learned Ayala already is withdrawing death-penalty charges in other cases besides the one that has dominated news since her announcement last Thursday, that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. Among them, Cortes said, is that of Larry D. Perry, who faces charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse of his son in 2013.

Cortes, whose District 30 includes Maitland and other parts of north Orange County in Ayala’s 9th Judicial Circuit, advised Scott that it is “obvious these cases will not be handled in the manner they should be by the current state attorney.

“I respectfully ask that you suspend State Attorney Aramis Ayala from her position,” he wrote.

In an accompanying press release, Cortes declared, “I continue to believe strongly that State Attorney Ayala’s disregard for Markeith Loyd’s victims demonstrates the irreparable harm she could do to justice in the Ninth Circuit and warrants her removal from office.

“If she continues to follow through with her promise to not hear current death penalty cases, including six pending cases, justice may be thwarted for additional victims of heinous crimes,” he added. “I appreciate the Governor’s swift response thus far. I am confident he will continue to act within the scope of Florida law to ensure that justice is done for Markeith Loyd’s victims and everyone in the Ninth Circuit.”

Ayala announced last Thursday that was opposing the death penalty because she had concluded after a legal review that it is not just for anyone, including the families of victims who must endure many years and sometimes decades of delays and appeals.

She has received little support so far from Central Florida’s legislative delegation. Last week Cortes and fellow Republican state Reps. Mike Miller and Rene Plasencia called a press conference first calling for the Loyd case to be reassigned, and for her to possibly be removed. On Friday Democratic state Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando, a retired police officer, also condemned her decision. And on Monday Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon said he would consider re-reviewing funding for the 9th Judicial Circuit Office of the State Attorney. Except for Torres, Central Florida’s Democratic lawmakers have been largely silent.

Scott deflected questions Monday about whether he might consider removing her from office, though he said all options were on the table.

Has any elected prosecutor ever done what Aramis Ayala is doing?

Elected prosecutors who declare they will not pursue the death penalty – as State Attorney Aramis Ayala of Orlando did last week – are rare and far between. And she might be unique in American history for being both very public and firm on that policy.

Still, Robert T. Johnson of The Bronx, New York should know what she’s going through.

“There was a lot of hue and cry. It was very, very similar,” William Fitzpatrick, chairman of the National District Attorneys Association and himself the elected district attorney in Syracuse, N.Y., said of Johnson’s story.

Johnson, Fitzpatrick said, was the only elected prosecutor he could think of who, like Ayala, renounced the death penalty in a state that had a death penalty law.

Yet there likely have been, and probably currently are, other elected prosecutors around the country who’ve quietly adopted the same policy as Ayala and Johnson, but just never publicly announced anything, Fitzpatrick said.

Some of them, including Johnson, went on to have long careers as prosecutors, and in higher politics.

And 19 states do not have the death penalty, so prosecutors there do not have to make what Fitzpatrick called the most difficult decision any prosecutor can make.

In 1995, while Johnson was running for re-election as the district attorney of Bronx County, N.Y., the state of New York enacted a death penalty. Johnson, a Democrat, said during his campaign that year that he would not use it in the Bronx, though, unlike Ayala he never called a press conference at his office to formally announce that it would be a district-wide policy. And, Fitzpatrick said, “He tried to distance himself from those remarks later.”

But along came the slaying of a New York police officer, Kevin Gillespie, in early 1996. Then-New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, demanded through a letter to know how Johnson intended to prosecute alleged cop-killer Angel Diaz.

“Rob, a very principled guy, got pissed off about the letter, said it was ‘none of your business. I’m going to do what I have to do,'” recalled Fitzpatrick, who is a Republican.

So Pataki issued an executive order stripping the Diaz case from Johnson and giving it to the state attorney general to prosecute instead.

As Ayala is now doing, Johnson challenged the governor to court. He lost, when the New York Supreme Court sided with Pataki. But it became moot, because Diaz killed himself in prison before he could be tried.

Johnson never did prosecute a death penalty case. Eventually, New York’s law was struck down, in 2004, and not replaced. Johnson continued getting re-elected and serving as the Bronx DA until 2015, when he ran for, and won, a justice seat on the New York Supreme Court.

He declined to talk to FloridaPolitics.com about his experience or Ayala’s case, saying through his office that it would be “inappropriate” for a Supreme Court justice to comment.

But there certainly were others who avoided the death penalty simply by refusing to prosecute it on a case-by-case basis, but just never announcing it as a formal policy, Fitzpatrick said.

They probably included now-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who, despite some high-profile, horrific cases, had no death penalty prosecutions while district attorney of San Francisco from 2004-’11, he said. And just across the East River from Johnson in New York, was legendary New York County District Attorney Bob Morgenthau, DA in Manhattan for 34 years before he retired in 2009. He never saw any death penalty cases either.

“It was ‘Wink-wink, nod-nod,’ Bob would never seek the death penalty, but we all knew,” Fitzpatrick said.

There have been no such wink-wink, nod-nod state attorneys in Florida, said Buddy Jacobs, longtime general counsel to the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. And there certainly have been no attorneys who’ve been open about opposition either, he said. Ayala is the first to renounce the death penalty, either publicly or in practice.

Aramis Ayala files stay to keep Markeith Loyd case

State Attorney Aramis Ayala has filed for a stay of Gov. Rick Scott‘s order reassigning the Markeith Loyd police slaying case to neighboring State Attorney Brad King.

Scott responded Monday afternoon saying he believes he has the authority to do so through executive order. That sets up a court battle over the powers of the governor and an elected state attorney.

“The State Attorney filed a Motion to Stay Proceedings in the Markeith Loyd case because Ms. Ayala does not believe the Governor has the authority to remove her from this case,” Ayala’s office stated in a release issued Monday afternoon. “However, Ms. Ayala does not want to hold up the process and further impact the families.

“This is a time sensitive case and Ms. Ayala would like to see the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd,” the statement concluded.

Scott stripped the Markeith Loyd case from Ayala on Thursday after the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties, announced Thursday she had concluded the death penalty was unjust of all and she would not pursue it in the Loyd case or any other case in her circuit.

Loyd is charged with murdering his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon and Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton.

Ayala’s decision to seek life in prison without possibility of parole set off a firestorm of political protest against and in support of her decision. Scott expressed on Thursday that she was failing to do her job and used an executive order to remove the Loyd case from her and reassign it to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King.

On Monday both King and Ayala attended a pretrial hearing for Loyd, and Ayala stated she intended to fight Scott on the reassignment.

“I’m very comfortable with that,” he said of his reassignment order. “I made the right decision. I had the authority to do it.”

“Last week she said she was fine with that. Today she has changed her position and so this case has been assigned to Brad King which I think is the right decision,” Scott said. I

Scott would not comment on whether he has considered taking steps to remove Ayala from office. He said he was keeping all options open.

He also said, “I’ll deal with that at the time,” when asked what he might do with future cases.

 

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