Elected Florida prosecutor discontinues her policy against pursuing the death penalty

Death Penalty

Aramis Donell Ayala

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala. Image from Twitter.

The elected chief prosecutor for the Orlando area has reversed her ban on seeking the death penalty, the Orlando Sentinel reported Friday.

The announcement from State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who represents Florida’s Orange and Osceola Counties, came one day after the Florida Supreme Court ruled (PDF) against Ayala. She had asked the high court whether Florida Gov. Rick Scott had the authority to remove 29 first-degree murder cases from her office by executive order. The high court ruled against her, saying the ban was not within her prosecutorial discretion.

Ayala announced the ban in March, saying the death penalty does not act as a deterrent, puts victims’ families through decades of unnecessary suffering and is applied unevenly across racial categories. She said Friday that she would convene a panel of seven assistant prosecutors to review cases in which capital punishment might be an option. If all seven agree that it’s appropriate, the assistant prosecutor in charge will be able to pursue it.

Scott’s office declined to say whether he would keep future capital cases in Ayala’s office, saying “the governor must be convinced that the death penalty will be sought … when appropriate.”

The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling comes in a lawsuit Ayala filed directly with the high court after Scott took away the cases, an earlier Sentinel article says. Ayala had argued that she was exercising her prosecutorial discretion, but the high court’s five-justice majority said she “has exercised no discretion at all.”

“Ayala’s blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case, including a case that ‘absolutely deserve[s] [the] death penalty’ does not reflect an exercise of prosecutorial discretion; it embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law,” write Justice C. Alan Lawson for the five-justice majority.

Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince dissented, arguing that Ayala was within her rights, and that Scott’s removal of the cases “fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of duly elected State Attorneys.”

Ayala also filed a parallel federal lawsuit, the Sentinel says, which is still pending. Ayala’s attorney, Roy Austin, Jr., said what happens next in the federal case depends on how the governor responds to Ayala’s seven-prosecutor panel.

The 29 death penalty cases Scott took from Ayala’s office landed with State Attorney Brad King of Ocala, who has taken two to trial. Both defendants received a death sentence.

Ayala made the news separately in July when an account of police pulling her over, believing her valid license plate was not registered to any vehicle, went viral.

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