Aramis Ayala is fighting for her political life. Newly elected as the State Attorney for Orange-Osceola in Florida covering Orlando and the surrounding area. She defeated incumbent Jeff Ashton, best known for his role as lead prosecutor in the infamous Casey Anthony trial. Ashton had name recognition and the backing of the establishment. Ayala had money.
She benefited from just under a million dollars in spending from Florida Safety and Justice, a Political Action Committee (PAC) tied to George Soros. Television ads and mailings from the PAC were considered a factor in her surprise victory. I live in the area, received mailings from both candidates and saw her ads. Ayala campaigned on the promises she would prosecute domestic violence cases and ensure racial equality in the State Attorney’s office. Aramis Ayala worked in Ashton’s office as a prosecutor for two years. She worked as a Public Defender in Orange County for eight years prior to that. While not relevant, some would insist you know of her husband’s conviction when young of a drug offense before they met in church.
Her platform focused on more transparency and prosecution of personal crimes like domestic violence. She said she’d bridge the gap between communities who perceived an inequity in justice, particularly the black community, and her office.
In December of 2016. 41-year-old Markeith Loyd was declared the main suspect in the shooting death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon. Sade’s brother who was also shot and other family members identified Loyd as doing the shooting that took place at Ms. Dixon’s parent’s home. In an earlier incident, Loyd assaulted Dixon during an altercation and bit her. Markeith Loyd fled from the scene and was the subject of a manhunt that would last almost a month.
On January 6, 2017 at 4:00pm, Aramis Ayala was sworn in as the Orange/Osceola State Prosecutor. She was the first African American State Attorney in Florida history. When Aramis ran for office. The Death Penalty did not exist in the State of Florida. It had earlier been declared unconstitutional (twice) and had not been a campaign issue. Ayala would later say, “When I ran for office, I don’t recall death penalty ever coming up as an issue. And it doesn’t surprise me because when I ran for office, death penalty was unconstitutional in the State of Florida. We’ve only gotten a constitutional statute as of March 13th of this year.”
On January 9th, 2017, three days after Ayala assumed office. Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton was killed in an Orlando Walmart parking lot. A citizen approached Clayton saying they thought they had seen Loyd. As Clayton neared Loyd, he shot her. She returned fire, striking him in the chest but he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Ultimately, he shot her four times. One which entered her neck was declared the fatal wound. It entered at a downward angle while Loyd stood over her. He basically executed her after she was already disabled. A second officer, Orange County Deputy Norman Lewis, died during the search for Markeith Loyd.
The ensuing manhunt was on an entirely different level than when Loyd killed Sade Dixon. His face was plastered all over local television and social media. Rewards were offered up to $100,000. His employer, a niece and different ex-girlfriend were arrested on charges of harboring a fugitive. It was widely discussed among locals that they didn’t expect Loyd would be captured alive given the outrage of the police. On January 17th, Loyd was captured alive despite being heavily armed and wearing body armor. Captured alive but make no mistake they beat his ass, damaging one eye. Video showed officers kicking him after he was down and handcuffed. There was no outrage. He was universally considered scum by black and white alike. No one cared.
On January 19th, Loyd had his first court appearance where he indicated he wanted to defend himself. Attempting to tell his version of the original murder. He disputed what he called “the lies” being told by the media. As the hearing ended he told the judge, “Fuck you!” twice. He protested the injuries received during his arrest. There was no community outrage. No one cared.
Markeith Loyd was as reviled a defendant as any that had come through the Orange County Courthouse in some time. On March 16th, Aramis Ayala, after extensive research, announced she would not be seeking the death penalty in any cases coming to her office. Then the gates of hell opened, unleashing its hordes upon her. She received death threats including a noose sent to her office.
Before she decided not to pursue the death penalty in any cases. Ayala had her staff review the newly enacted statute and past cases. She says only then did she make her decision. She said, “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.”
“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.”
News of the policy leaked to a local television station and there was soon a condemnation from Orlando Police Chief John Mina. Not long after, there were quick responses from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Governor Rick Scott. In a written statement Bondi stated, “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.”
Governor Scott said, “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.” Governor Scott asked her to recuse herself from the case and she refused. The Governor later removed her from the case, appointing another prosecutor. He later removed her from all 23 potential death penalty cases handled by her office.
She was not immune to criticism from the local black community. Former Judge Belvin Perry (also of Casey Anthony fame) was outraged and has stated he believes Ayala will be removed from office. Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demmings agreed with Governor Scott’s decision to take her off the case. Demmings also spoke to the mother of Sade Dixon, Loyd’s first victim who indicated she was upset with the decision to not seek the death penalty but understood the reasons.
There are some things generally accepted as true. Sometimes the wrong person gets convicted, DNA evidence has overturned many cases over the years. Once an inmate is executed, there is no satisfactory resolution. It is also true that race has historically played a role in sentencing and that disparity has led to an inordinate number of black and Hispanic prisoners being executed as opposed to white convicts. This is not because minorities commit more heinous crimes than white people. Studies have shown minorities are more likely to get harsher sentencing and/or the death penalty than whites. Critics say Aramis Ayala didn’t run on a platform advocating repeal of the death penalty. She certainly said she wanted to address the unfairness of the system and reach out to the minorities who perceive systemic injustice.
Aramis has her supporters as well. Several legal experts suggest the Governor doesn’t have the power to remove cases from the legally elected State Attorney. Her lawyer Roy Austin says, “The justice system is supposed to be, and holds itself out to be, independent of political influence. This is one of the clearest cases of an attempt to politicize our justice system. So, I think people nationally who care about the independence of the justice system care about what happens in this case.”
She’s received support from the NAACP, ACLU, the Sentencing Project and Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Some have suggested that Ayala was singled out for her race. Ayala said of the Governor’s action, “What I think about the Governor, what is clear is that he’s attacking the independence of prosecutors. He’s abusing his power and he’s got absolutely no substantive law that I’ve violated.” When asked about justice for the victim’s families, she replied,”There are cases in my office from 1976, 77, when I was two years old that families have been waiting on death sentences. There’s no reason for those families not to have some level of closure.”
On April 11, 2017, Ayala filed a Federal lawsuit against Governor Scott. Constitutional law professor Darren Hutchinson saya she makes two main points. The Governor has diluted the power of the voters of Orange/Osceola County that elected her to the position. It also deprives Ayala of her constitutional right to due process. He said, “She’s an elected official, and that gives her the right to hold that job and perform it fully. Governor Scott has deprived her of that job in an arbitrary way… it’s just because he disagrees with her.”
A recent poll says that 62% of Orange/Osceola citizens would prefer people convicted of first degree murder serve life sentences. The poll was not specific to Markeith Loyd where I suspect those wanting death would poll higher.
Aramis Ayala is a different choice for Shadow Warrior than previous honorees. She fights for what will seem to some as an inconvenient justice. She is correct when she says the death penalty has been and still is unfairly applied. She’s right in that sometimes states get it wrong and kill the wrong person. We could agree that there is no appropriate recompense when a mistake is made. There is much we can agree upon, including that the bulk of the establishment, and much of the public want Markeith Loyd dead for his crimes. One more than the other. When the pregnant ex-girlfriend was killed it was bad. When a police officer was killed, revenge is apparently required.
Florida is not alone in the need for exacting revenge. Oklahoma, Arkansas and others have thrown cruel and unusual punishment out the window. They’ve demonstrated willingness to use unauthorized and untested chemical combinations to kill, possibly breaking laws themselves in their desire for vengeance. Other states have redefined mental disabilities to allow what otherwise would not be permitted. States resist DNA testing that might prove innocence lest they get in the way of a promised execution. One the side of quick executions, even at the risk of getting some wrong is the President, Attorney General, most Governors and in Florida’s case the weight of the State government including the Republican legislature. Aramis Ayala stands mainly alone.
That the law supports Ayala’s right to decide whether to seek the death penalty is clear. Should the citizens that elected her dislike her choices there is a mechanism called an election to remove her from office. There are provisions for recall elections should the next election be too far away. There is no legal apparatus for the Governor to restrict her cases, threaten the offices budget (which he has) of for the Legislature to attempt to remove her. Ayala has taken a stand and is facing the whirlwind. A true warrior!
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Dr Crystal A. deGregory
The Wilson Academy