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Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala vows no death penalties

Saying she has concluded that Florida’s capital punishment laws are unjust for all, State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced Thursday she would not pursue the death penalty in any cases in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Orlando.

The policy begins with perhaps the most obvious and highest-profile potential death penalty case that has come along in Orlando in years, that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. She said she would prosecute him for life imprisonment for the alleged murders of his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon last December and that of Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton in January.

Making her announcement on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse, newly-elected Ayala declared that she made the decision after asking her staff for a full review of the death penalty, Florida’s law, including the newly-enacted statute approved by the Florida Legislature this Session, and case history. After reviewing the findings, she said only then did she conclude that she could not and would not pursue death penalty prosecutions.

“I took an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution and the American Bar Association rules of conduct outline my duties as a prosecutor. My duty is to seek justice, which is fairness, objectivity and decency. I am to seek reform and to improve the administration of justice. I am prohibited from making the severity of my sentences the index of my effectiveness,” she said.

“What has become abundantly clear through this process is while I currently 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 interest of justice,” she said. “After review and consideration of the new statute, under my administration, I will not be seeking death penalty in cases handled in my office.”

Word of the policy leaked and was reported Wednesday by WFTV news, leading Orlando Police Chief John Mina to condemn her decision passionately.

It also brought a swift reaction from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott

“State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s decision today sends a dangerous message to residents and visitors of the greater Orlando area — furthermore, it is a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer,” Bondi declared in a written statement.

“I want to be very clear, Lt. Debra Clayton was executed while she was laying on the ground fighting for her life. She was killed by an evil murderer who did not think twice about senselessly ending her life,” Scott stated. “I completely disagree with State Attorney Ayala’s decision and comments, and I am asking her to recuse herself immediately from this case. She has made it abundantly clear that she will not fight for justice for Lt. Debra Clayton and our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day.”

It also brought praise from Civil Rights leaders.

“A powerful symbol of racial injustice has now been discarded in Orange County,” declared Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, in a written statement. “We are so thankful that Aramis Ayala recognizes that an institution plagued by racial bias has no place in our society today. Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system.”

“I applaud State Attorney Ayala’s announcement to no longer seek the death penalty,” the Rev. Russel Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, stated. “People of faith across Florida are deeply troubled by capital punishment–its needless destruction of human life, its toll on murder victims’ families, and its enormous cost to the state.”

On Thursday Ayala held firm against criticism, insisting that families of slaying victims are ill-served by a death penalty process that almost assuredly leads to years and decades of delays and costly appeals, and insisting she was prepared for consequences.

When asked why she did not express such doubts about the death penalty during her campaign last year to allow voters to know, Ayala replied, “All voters know now.”

Nor does she express fear or concern about House Joint Resolution 999, which would create an avenue for the impeachment of state attorneys. That bill moved swiftly through a house committee Thursday morning after news first was reported about Ayala’s policy.

She said she is confident she is doing her duty under the  Constitution and Florida Bar requirements.

She said she would withdraw death penalty charges in current cases, and would deal with mandated cases sent back to her from the Florida Supreme Court on a case-by-case basis, and follow the Supreme Court’s instructions.

Ayala outlined five reasons for her decision, her conclusions that:

— The death penalty has no public safety benefit. She cited studies showing no difference in homicide rates between places that have it and places that do not.

— It does not increase safety for law enforcement officers. She said she could not find any credible evidence that suggests it does.

— It is not a crime deterrent. She said deterrents need to be swift and consistent, and said death penalty administrations are neither.

— “False promises of death penalty give families no closure … I have learned that death penalty traps many victims’ families in decades-long cycles of uncertainty … some are left waiting for an execution that may never occur. I cannot in good faith look a family in the face and say any death penalty handed down by our courts will result in an execution.

— “The death penalty costs millions of dollars that far outweigh the costs of life sentences.”

Ayala was elected in what was largely a surprise course of events last year, ousting high-profile State Attorney Jeff Ashton after New York progressive politics billionaire George Soros spent $1.4 million on an independent campaign to support her. It left her Thursday deflecting questions about whether Soros had any influence on her policy. She insisted she did not know what Soros’ position was and had not communicated with him. “Ask him,” she said.

She also attempted to dismiss her “personal feelings,” and to distance herself from statements she made during the campaign that she could support death penalty prosecutions.

“When I am in the position of state attorney I have to eliminate my personal feelings and pursue whether or not the evidence supports my decision, and I believe it does,” she said.

She also said she does not worry about taking the death penalty off the table in cases where it could be a bargaining chip for police or prosecutors to extract information or plea bargains.

“One thing I think is inhumane is to negotiate life,” she said.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at

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