On March 16, Aramis Ayala, the first black state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Florida, which includes Orlando and Orange counties, took the podium in front of the Orange County Courthouse and announced that her office would no longer seek the death penalty. “I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice,” Ayala said, explaining that she’d based her decision on a host of factors, including the high costs of death-penalty prosecutions, the lack of a deterrent effect, and harm to the victims’ families. “I do understand this is a controversial issue,” Ayala concluded. “But what is not controversial is the evidence that led me to my decision.”
The impetus for Ayala’s announcement was the trial of Markeith Loyd, who was accused of shooting his pregnant ex-girlfriend in her home as well as a police officer in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Witnesses saw Loyd firing multiple rounds into the officer’s prone body. The killing inspired particular ire among law-enforcement leaders, who demanded the death penalty alongside the Florida attorney general and some lawmakers.
Opposition to Ayala’s death-penalty ban came swiftly. Florida Governor Rick Scott removed her from the Loyd case and then went a step further, removing Ayala from all of the capital cases in her district—more than two dozen—and reassigning them to Brad King, the state attorney for the neighboring Fifth Judicial Circuit. King, a former sheriff’s deputy, is a steadfast supporter of capital punishment. Ayala’s choice also put Florida’s other elected state attorneys in an uncomfortable spotlight: Many were quick to condemn her, supported by law enforcement and victims’-rights advocates. Someone sent her a noose in the mail along with racist messages, and a court employee wrote on Facebook that Ayala should be “tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.” Later, she was pulled over by an Orlando cop and subjected to intrusive and skeptical questioning. (A video of the encounter later went viral.) One former state attorney predicted that Ayala’s decision would lead to a huge spike in murders, saying on the local news that “I, frankly, was flabbergasted…. When you don’t have a death penalty, bad things happen.”
Among those opposing Ayala was the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, a professional organization that includes the state attorneys from every judicial circuit in the state. In addition to providing resources and training for prosecutors, the FPAA provides testimony before the State Legislature, lobbies for or against pending bills, and writes amicus briefs. After Governor Scott announced that he would remove Ayala from all of her capital cases, she sued to stop him, arguing that he was constitutionally prohibited from doing so. Officially, the FPAA has no position on capital punishment, but in May the organization filed an amicus brief siding with Scott and arguing against Ayala, a dues-paying member of the association. The FPAA brief said that Ayala had violated the separation-of-powers doctrine by effectively setting her own policy. (At the end of August, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Ayala in a split decision.)