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Bob Cortes calls for Rick Scott to take murder-for-hire case from Aramis Ayala

Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes called on Gov. Rick Scott Tuesday to reassign a “heinous” murder-for-hire prosecution case away from State Attorney Aramis Ayala of Orlando – but her office basically shrugged off the lawmaker’s demand, contending that Scott no longer has any reason to remove cases from her review.

“The author of the letter may not be aware this issue has been resolved,” a statement from Ayala’s case declared, dismissing Cortes — who had been perhaps the Legislature’s harshest critic of Ayala and her death penalty policies last year — as if he might be just some misinformed letter writer.

Cortes, Ayala, and Scott had engaged in hostile rhetoric and landmark legislative, executive, judicial, and legal wrangling throughout much of 2017, after she declared her opposition last March to prosecuting Florida’s death penalty. Cortes then, and repeatedly since, called for Scott to remove her from office. Scott removed more than 30 of her murder cases. She sued. The Florida Supreme Court sided with Scott. In September Ayala relinquished, conceded she had been wrong and vowed to turn all potential capital punishment cases over to a panel in her office that she promised would make prosecutorial decisions independent of her views or input.

Aside from a rhetorical skirmish and litigation threats in November and December involving a dispute over whether that panel and Ayala had botched one particular capital punishment case filing, Ayala’s office has been left largely alone since. It now is pursuing the death penalty in three cases in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties.

Cortes, whose House District 30 includes a portion of north-central Orange County, has remained adamant in his criticism of Ayala, continuing to express doubts about her resolve.

On Tuesday he wrote to Scott advising him a particularly notorious murder case that emerged from Osceola County this past week, that of Janice Zengotita-Torres, allegedly kidnapped as a mistaken identity in a botched murder-for-hire scheme, and then allegedly murdered anyway. Cortes called on Scott to reassign the case away from Ayala, as he had done with murder cases in mid-2017.

“I write to ask you not to allow State Attorney Aramis Ayala to handle this case,” Cortes wrote to Scott. “She has proven her lack of objectivity in seeking appropriate justice in capital cases. For the sake of Mrs. Zengotita-Torres’s family, please reassign this case to  a state attorney willing to pursue the death penalty.”

“All murders are tragedies, but this one seems even more so because it involves the cold-blooded killing of a victim of mistaken identity,” Cortes stated in a news release issued by his office. “While we pray for Ms. Zengotita-Torres’s family, we must also pursue justice for her and make it crystal clear that the safety of Florida’s residents and visitors is our highest priority.”

Ayala’s office replied: “State Attorney Ayala will continue to seek justice, fight for victims and follow the law.”

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 scott@floridapolitics.com.

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