Death Penalty

Elected Florida Prosecutor Tries to Stop Using the Death Penalty, but Governor Won't Have It

A cop was killed, so there will be no debate about morality of the system.


Aramis Ayala
Joe Burbank/TNS/Newscom

Aramis Ayala wasn't kidding when she ran and won a position as a prosecutor in Florida on a platform of criminal justice reform. And now she's making national news for refusing to ask for the death penalty in the case of a man charged with murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and subsequently an Orlando police officer.

Ayala represented a small number of new prosecutors representing a trend in 2016 of voters turning to candidates that offered a less harsh justice system and dumping some incumbents.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is not impressed with Ayala's decision, and even though the citizens of Osceola and Orange counties elected her, Scott is using his authority to move the case to another district and put it before another prosecutor. This came after she ignored his fully absurd demand that she recuse herself for not having the same position on the applicability of the death penalty as Scott's.

The story has inevitably crystalized around the fact that Ayala will not call for the death penalty for a man who killed a police officer above anything else. From CNN:

"[Ayala] has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case to State Attorney Brad King," Scott said. "These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served."

Earlier Thursday, Ayala said capital punishment in Florida had led to "chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil."

She argued that evidence showed the death penalty was overly expensive, slow, inhumane and did not increase public safety. Ayala said after "extensive and painstaking thought and consideration," she determined that pursing the death penalty "is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice."

"Some victims will support and some will surely oppose my decision," she said. "But I have learned that the death penalty traps many victims, families in a decades-long cycle of uncertainty, court hearings, appeals and waiting."

To be very clear, because some of the coverage is a little ambiguous: Ayala is going to refuse to pursue the death penalty for any murder handled by her office. It's remarkable among prosecutors both for the political risk it opens up for Ayala but also for the fact that this isn't even a case where there's a lot of ambiguity that causes folks to question the application of the death penalty. This is the kind of case where people who are ambivalent about the death penalty are nevertheless likely to support Loyd's execution (assuming he's found guilty). Shooting a pregnant ex-girlfriend? Killing a cop execution-style and having it captured on video? The politically expedient thing for Ayala to do here would be to declare her personal opposition to the death penalty but ultimately allow the jury to decide.

Though leaders and representatives of law enforcement are furious, Ayala is getting support from groups like Amnesty International and the NAACP. The political maneuvering from the governor's office, though, shows the challenge when prosecutors attempt to step back even just a slight bit in high-profile cases. Based on the facts of the case, it seems unlikely Loyd is ever going to see the outside of a prison again, ever. But just the prospect that Florida might not execute him as well is apparently too much for some people to countenance, even though the state's own death penalty has been temporarily suspended over constitutional issues.