The Florida prosecutor who thrust herself into the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement is a political novice who was elected just seven months ago.
Aramis Ayala, a Democrat and former public defender and assistant state attorney, surprised many of her own supporters when she announced this week that her office would no longer seek capital punishment in a state that has one of the largest death rows. In response, the state’s Republican governor promptly transferred a potential death penalty case — the killing of a police officer and a pregnant woman earlier this year — to another Florida prosecutor.
“I understand this is a controversial issue, but what isn’t controversial is the evidence that led me to my decision,” said Ayala, the first black state attorney elected in Florida.
She 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.
Advocates seeking to abolish the death penalty said Ayala sent a powerful message. Her decision reflects decreasing support for capital punishment in the U.S., said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
“There are some prosecutors who in practice are following her lead. They just haven’t spoken out like she has,” Clifton said. “It would be wonderful if they spoke out and we could have a louder voice.”
Ayala spent the first decade or so of her career as an assistant state attorney and public defender. She was a prosecutor in the state attorney’s office for Orange and Osceola counties for about two years before she decided to seek the top job. The county is home to Walt Disney World and other tourist attractions and has grown more liberal over the past two decades.
Ayala was a political newcomer last year when she took on her former boss, then-State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who had been one of the prosecutors in the Casey Anthony case. Anthony was acquitted of murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Ayala didn’t run on an anti-death penalty platform when she campaigned, since at the time Florida’s death penalty law was in question after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. A new death penalty bill was signed into law this week.
She instead emphasized during her campaign that she would engage with average citizens if elected. She acknowledged that her husband had served time in prison for drug conspiracy and counterfeiting checks years ago.
Even some of Ayala’s supporters said Friday they were taken aback by her decision.
Lawson Lamar, a former state attorney and sheriff, who backed her run for office, said: “Anyone who raises their hand and takes the oath to be state attorney must be able to go with the death penalty even if they feel it’s distasteful.”
Ayala’s campaign was helped by a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros. The committee gave Ayala’s campaign almost $1 million, as well as millions of dollars to candidates in local races around the nation.
When asked if the donations influenced her decision, she said it did not.
Florida has 381 inmates on death and shows no sign of slowing down future prosecutions. The other state attorneys in Florida issued a statement Friday saying they would continue to seek the death penalty.
Rafael Zaldivar, whose son was murdered in Orlando in 2012, said Ayala’s decision is part of a political agenda and has no place in the state attorney’s office. He demanded her resignation.
“She is an activist. She isn’t a prosecutor. She has an agenda,” said Zaldivar, whose son’s killer was sentenced to death in 2015. Questions over Florida’s death penalty law have cast doubt over the sentence. His case is currently on appeal.
After Ayala announced her decision, Gov. Rick Scott transferred the case of Markeith Loyd from her authority to another state attorney in a neighboring district. Loyd is charged in the killing of police Lt. Debra Clayton, as well as Sade Dixon, who was Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend.
Dixon’s mother said she supported Ayala’s decision, saying the death penalty would drag out the process for her family.
“I would love for him to die right now, but that isn’t going to happen,” Stephanie Dixon-Daniels said at a news conference outside the Orange County Courthouse.
Ayala’s decision could play into any future political aspirations. In California, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris faced similar circumstances a dozen years ago when she decided not to pursue the death penalty against a man accused of killing a San Francisco police officer. Harris went on to become the state’s attorney general and a U.S. senator.