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Busloads of ‘hundreds’ planned for Aramis Ayala rally in Tallahassee

A coalition of Civil Rights and other organizations is planning to bus hundreds of supporters to Tallahassee for a rally Thursday for Orlando’s embattled State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

The “Ride For Aramis,” events will conclude with a 12:30 p.m. rally on the Duval Road steps of the Florida Capitol.

Organizers, which include the NAACP, Latino Justice, Florida Council of Churches, Orange County Black Voice, the 8th Amendment Project, Color of Change, Equal Justice USA, and Let Your Voice Be Heard Orlando, said they will be bringing in busloads of Ayala supporters and death penalty opponents from Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Pensacola, and Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Two weeks ago Ayala, newly-elected, announced she would not pursue death penalty prosecutions in her Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties. She’s received powerful political blowback, starting with condemnations from Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Scott used an executive order to remove her from her highest-profile murder case and reassigned the Markeith Loyd case to State Attorney Brad King of Ocala. She has indicated she intends to challenge that move in court.

She also has received declarations of support from many groups, including all of those involved in organizing Thursday’s rally. Some Florida and Central Florida Democratic groups also have declared their support, but mainly for her prosecutorial discretion, and not so often for her position opposing the death penalty.

But does it come with a Bose premium surround-sound audio system?

Blue Origin rocket company founder Jeff Bezos is never one to let his arch-rival Elon Musk entirely dominate headlines, so as Musk’s SpaceX prepares the first-ever launch into space of a used Falcon 9 rocket Thursday, Bezos must have figured it’s time to offer a sneak-peak at his company’s planned crew capsule.

Leather seats. Giant windows. Luxury throughout. No word yet if it’s got a Bose premium surround-sound audio system.

Blue Origin is building a rocket factory outside the front gate of Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County where it will assemble its New Glenn and New Shepard rockets, for missions yet unannounced. The company also plans to join SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic and maybe a couple other space companies in sending humans into space, though unlike SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada, it has no NASA contracts for that yet.

But it does have a mock-up of its planned space capsule now, and Bezos showed it off Wednesday morning in an email. It seems to emphasize luxury, perhaps expected from the private, space-tourism astronauts to whom his company will cater.

“Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system,” Bezos wrote. “In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort. Here’s a sneak peek.”

Then, as he announces that a capsule mock-up can be seen by the public next week, Bezos sends a subtle dig at SpaceX and Musk, for their big launch of a recycled Falcon 9 first stage, set for Thursday evening from Kennedy Space Center.

“If you happen to be attending the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 3-6, come see this for yourself,” Bezos wrote. “The high-fidelity capsule mockup will be on display alongside the New Shepard reusable booster that flew to space and returned five times.”

While the New Shepard, launched from Blue Origin’s private launch site in west Texas, has gone into space five times, it has only achieved sub-orbital altitudes, giving Musk the bragging rights for a first reusable rocket that gets spacecraft into orbit.


Aramis Ayala loses judge’s ruling but pushes forward to challenge case reassignment

After losing a judge’s ruling Tuesday on her request to remain the prosecutor for the murder trial of of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd, Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala vowed Tuesday to continue fighting for her right to represent the state in that case.

Ninth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Frederick Lauten ruled Tuesday that the state attorney from Ocala, Brad King, would represent the state, in the case of Loyd, charged with killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon and Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Afterwards, Ayala indicated she would challenge the executive order made by Gov. Rick Scott, stripping the Loyd case from Ayala and assigning it to King, after Ayala had declared she would not pursue the death penalty in that or any other case in her Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties. To do so, she intends to seek a writ of quo warranto, forcing Scott to show what authority he used to reassign the case.

“By inserting his personal politics into this case, Governor Scott’s unprecedented action is dangerous and could compromise the prosecution of Markeith Loyd and threatens the integrity of Florida’s judicial system. As the judge found today, what has been done is unheard of,” Ayala said in a written statement. “We will move forward to expose the governor’s action as unlawful and unconstitutional in a way that does not compromise the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd.”

On Tuesday, Ayala appeared in court with Roy Austin, a former federal prosecutor and former legal official in President Barack Obama’s administration, the Sentinel reported.

In related news, Ayala received the backing of the Orange County Young Democrats, whose board voted unanimously to support her prosecutorial discretion to decide to not use the death penalty. That group issued a statement consistent with earlier statements issued by the Orange County Democratic Party Executive Committee, the Orange Democratic Black Caucus, the Florida Democratic Black Caucus, and the Florida Democratic Progressive Caucus.

“Gov. Scott, who has signed more death warrants than any Governor since 1976, has no legitimate reason to remove or suspend State Attorney Ayala from any capitol case and is punishing her for her decision not to seek the death penalty. The decision to seek the death penalty remains solely within the discretion of the State Attorney and her office. Florida law only requires that she gives notice of her intention to seek the death penalty, or not, and State Attorney Ayala has satisfied her legal duties at every step of the way,” the Orange Young Dems declared in their statement. “Governor Rick Scott is conflating death with justice and he is acting on political motives. In choosing to not seek the death penalty, State Attorney Ayala is acting fully within her power and the Orange County Young Democrats stand united in support of her. We demand that Gov. Scott reinstate Aramis Ayala immediately so that she can resume her duties and vital work within the Orange County community.”

Pulse anniversary memorials set; Orlando calling for ‘acts of love and kindness’

The anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre is being declared as “Orlando United Day – A Day of Love and Kindness and will feature several memorial and commemorative events around Orlando and a call for all to join in acts of love and kindness.

The city and Orange County jointly announced Monday that the first anniversary of the tragic mass shooting – in which madman Omar Mateen killed 49 and wounded 53 – will feature at least four public events, including two held at Pulse, which remains boarded up as a shrine on south Orange Avenue.

In partnership with the One Orlando Alliance, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs are encouraging residents and businesses both locally and around the world to join with others in acts of love and kindness to continue the unity that followed the tragedy, according to a news release issued Monday by Dyer’s and Jacobs’ offices.

The One Orlando Alliance has launched a website, Orlando United Day, with a list of various potential acts of love and kindness for the local community.

The official website will provide information and updates also includes a link to the One Orlando Alliance page, and is available in both English and Spanish.

Currently it features a video in which Dyer and Jacobs lay out their feelings and the need for Orlando United Day.

“Our community will never forget the tragedy of pulse, or the grief of those who last loved ones, from heartbroken family and friends, to survivors putting shattered lives back together,” Dyer said. “Our community stands with you.”

“As we prepare for the anniversary of Pulse, the world is working to honor and remember the lives we lost,” Jacobs said. “Through a day of love and kindness, dedicated to the legacy of those who perished, we will continue to cherish their memories.”

Among events already planned for June 12:

– The Orange County History Center, archive for the outpouring of memorials following the Pulse massacre, will host an expanded One Orlando Collection and Digital Gallery from 10 a.m. to y p.m.

– The Orange County Administration Center will re-display a portion of the Sea-to-Sea Rainbow Flag, which was originally went up on the building on June 17.

– The Pulse Nightclub will host an event of reflections and remembrance from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

– The Lake Eola Park Amphitheater will host a one-year remembrance ceremony at 7 p.m.

– Pulse will host moments of hope and healing from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Judge says Pulse lawsuit may be tossed out of federal court

A judge says a lawsuit brought by victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre against the gunman’s employer and wife may be tossed out of federal court.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra last week issued an order raising questions about whether federal court was the proper jurisdiction for the lawsuit. The judge gave the plaintiffs 10 days to file a revised lawsuit or he said he would dismiss the complaint.

Attorneys for the Pulse victims didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Sunday.

Almost five dozen victims and families of the deceased filed the lawsuit last week in federal court in South Florida against security firm G4S and the wife of Omar Mateen, claiming they could have stopped the gunman before the attack last June but didn’t.

Forty-nine people died in the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history, and dozens more were injured.

The lawsuit was seeking an undisclosed amount of money.

The complaint said that G4S bosses knew Mateen was mentally unstable yet continued to employee him as a security guard and didn’t seek to have his firearms license revoked, even after he was investigated by the FBI in 2013 for telling co-workers he had connections to terrorists and a mass shooter. He later told his bosses he had made that up to get his co-workers to stop teasing him about being Muslim and the FBI determined he was not a threat.

A spokeswoman for G4S last week said the lawsuit was without merit and that the company would vigorously defend itself. A company spokeswoman on Sunday didn’t immediately respond to an email inquiry.

The lawsuit also said that Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, knew her husband was going to carry out the killings ahead of time yet did nothing. Salman currently is in jail awaiting trial in a separate criminal case. She has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of aiding and abetting her husband, and obstruction of justice.

The federal judge said cases should be brought to federal court because of “diversity jurisdiction” only if the lawsuits are between residents of different states, U.S. residents and residents of a foreign nation or residents of different states in which other parties may be subjects of foreign countries.

Although G4S is a British company, its principal place of business is in Florida, the judge said. He added that Salman was a Florida resident, as were many of the Pulse victims and their families, raising question about whether federal court is the proper venue.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

NAACP urges Rick Scott to return case to prosecutor

The Florida NAACP conference on Saturday urged Florida’s governor to return an officer-murder case to a prosecutor who had it taken away after she said her office will no longer seek the death penalty in any cases.

NAACP Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze said that the group’s members don’t support Gov. Rick Scott‘s decision to take the Markeith Loyd case away from State Attorney Aramis Ayala. Television station WKMG reports Nweze spoke at a news conference held Saturday at the group’s quarterly meeting in Orlando.

“The death penalty, killing people, is not the way that we end crime in this state,” said Leon Russell, the chairman of the NAACP national board of directors.

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

Scott gave Loyd’s case to another prosecutor after Ayala said she would no longer seek the death penalty.

In explaining her decision earlier this month, Ayala said there is no evidence that shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement, and it’s costly and drags on for years for the victims’ families.

Ayala said Scott overstepped his authority by taking Loyd’s case away from her, and she has asked for the right to make an argument before a judge about why she should get the case back. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

NAACP officials said Saturday that the death penalty does not stop crime and is expensive. They said money spent on the death penalty should go to other areas.

“Criminal justice spending is outstripping education spending throughout the nation, so why don’t we focus on those things that are actually building our community?” said Ngozi Ndulue, the NAACP national senior director of criminal justice.

Florida Speaker: Suspend prosecutor who nixes death penalty

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has called on the governor to suspend a prosecutor for pledging to not seek the death penalty in any case while she is in office.

Corcoran said Thursday that Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala was “violating the constitution” because she is not even considering the death penalty. Capital punishment is authorized under the Florida Constitution. Corcoran added that if Florida lawmakers had the power to impeach Ayala, they would already be doing so.

Gov. Rick Scott removed Ayala from a high-profile police murder case last week after she announced her decision against the death penalty. Ayala argues Scott has overstepped his bounds and filed a motion in response, asking a judge to let her present her argument in court.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Bob Cortes: I’m not running for Congress (yet)

Republican State Rep. Bob Cortes has decided he likes what he’s doing in the Florida House too much to want to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the next congressional election.

Cortes, of Altamonte Springs, had been seen as a leading potential GOP candidate in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, which the GOP has vowed will be a top target to take back after Murphy ousted longtime Congressman John Mica in November.

The decision didn’t come lightly. Last month Cortes went to Washington D.C. where national Republicans, including the National Republican Congressional Committee. He said he explored the prospect with his wife Virginia and the rest of his family, through prayer with God before deciding, and with discussions with friends, donors and advisors.

He said one thing that drew him to consider Congress was his belief that Puerto Ricans need to take more of a leadership role in national politics, but that the Democratic Party has turned them into a “sub-set.”

But not this time, and not for a while, Cortes said. His goal is to serve out his potential four terms (he’s in his second) representing Florida House District 30, where he said he believes he can do more good.

“Although yes, we were a great candidate to run for this seat and I believe I can be a very good candidate to run for this seat, I believe I still have a lot of work to do as a member of the Florida House and can be very effective in the next five and a half years,” Cortes said. “And I think my effectiveness and what I owe to the voters of my district is staying here and continuing my work and completing my work, if the voters allow me to work four more years.”

He left open the prospect of seeking the CD 7 seat after he’s done in the Florida House.

That leaves the CD 7 seat GOP run available for others, possibly state Sen. David Simmons, who also has expressed strong interest, though Simmons also is exploring other possibilities, including running for Florida Attorney General.

Cortes acknowledged other factors for his early decision and announcement, including making sure he leaves the field open for other Republicans to get an early start without having to worry about a primary against him.

Cortes also has been a leading critic of State Attorney Aramis Ayala, and called earlier this week for Gov. Rick Scott to suspend her from office. Cortes said he was hearing accusations that he did so because he thought the move might be good for a congressional campaign, but Thursday he said, “just the opposite is true,” and he wanted to put that speculation to rest.

Then again, Murphy may be no easy target for Republicans in the 2020 election. Her short campaign, well-financed by Washington Democrats, showed her to be an energetic, likable and well-prepared candidate and led to a surprise upset of Mica. In short, she’s seen as a Democratic Party rising star, likely to get strong party support in a district that, thanks to redistricting, has become far more Democratic, far more diverse, and far younger, all playing to her strengths.

Still, Cortes used the occasion of his announcement not to run to send some criticism Murphy’s way. Besides charging that she is out of touch with the growing Puerto Rican base in her district, Cortes said in a statement that he believes she has fallen “in lockstep with her caucus leadership in Washington instead of truly representing the people that elected her.”

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.”

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