A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

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Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala was elected last year on a vow to end tough-on-crime rhetoric and advance criminal justice reform. But just two months into her term, Ayala faces attempts to run her out of office after she refused to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer.

Ayala, whose district in Central Florida includes Orange and Osceola counties, announced last month that she would not seek the death penalty in the seven capital murder cases being handled by her office, including the prosecution of 41-year-old Markeith Loyd, who is charged with killing his pregnant girlfriend and an Orlando police officer.

The decision was praised by advocates for criminal justice reform, but it outraged local law enforcement groups and state GOP lawmakers, underscoring the potential political ramifications facing a new crop of reform-minded prosecutors across the country.

Gov. Rick Scott removed Ayala from Loyd’s case, a decision upheld Tuesday by a Florida judge after Ayala fought it in court. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has called on Scott to suspend the prosecutor, while the head of the state police union wants her removed from office altogether.

And in a budget proposal released last week, state lawmakers are seeking to slash more than $1.4 million and 21 positions from Ayala’s office, a move that her spokeswoman, Eryka Washington, has decried as “political posturing” that would cripple its ability to prosecute cases.

 

Ayala didn’t take a position on the death penalty during her campaign, but after researching the issue, she said she concluded that officers are no safer in states where prosecutors pursue the death penalty. And the often-lengthy appeals process in such cases means vows to quickly dispense of lethal justice are “a false promise” to victims’ families, she said.

“The death penalty doesn’t improve public safety. It doesn’t serve as a deterrent,” Ayala said in an interview. “I had to make that determination — am I going to give victims this false promise?”

More than 100 prosecutors, judges and law professors defended Ayala — the state’s first elected black prosecutor — in an open letter that decried Scott’s decision to remove her from Loyd’s case as an infringement on prosecutorial independence.

“Not all of us agree with her decision. But we do agree that she has the authority and discretion to make it,” the letter stated.

Ayala is among several prosecutors elected in recent years on the promise to usher in various changes to curb what they consider an over-incarceration crisis. Prosecutors in New York and Seattle have lessened the frequency with which they prosecute cases of marijuana possession, and in Houston, the prosecutor has begun a diversion program in which those caught with small amounts of marijuana are issued a citation and take an online course instead of being carted to jail. In Chicago, the local prosecutor has stopped treating shoplifting cases of less than $1,000 as felonies. And, as in Orlando, the local prosecutor in Denver has announced that she will not seek the death penalty while in office.

“For the first time, we have a critical mass of local elected prosecutors who believe that we need to do things differently and who are looking for ways to change the culture and practices in their offices,” said former federal prosecutor Miriam Aroni Krinsky, now executive director of the Fair and Just Prosecution, a criminal justice reform group. “And that’s going to mean making the tough calls in the tough cases.”

But those tough calls come with political repercussions. In Orlando, Ayala immediately faced opposition not only from law enforcement groups, but also from her fellow Florida prosecutors, some of whom believe that refusing to seek death for the worst criminals could lead to an increase in attacks on officers. The powerful Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association coordinated a rebuke of Ayala, signed by 19 of her 20 fellow state’s attorneys.

“The victims’ families of Florida deserve our dedication to implement all the laws of Florida,” the prosecutors’ statement declared. “That is why the people of Florida have elected us.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi decried Ayala’s decision as a “blatant neglect of duty.” A county official was forced to resign after he wrote a Facebook post that seemed to call for Ayala to be lynched. Ayala “should be tarred and feathered . . . ” Stan McCullars, assistant finance director for the Seminole County clerk of court, wrote in a now-deleted post, “ . . . if not hung from a tree.”

Loyd had been dating Sade Dixon, 24, for about three months when, on Dec. 13, he allegedly shot and killed her and wounded one of her brothers outside the Dixon family home in Orlando. Dixon was two months pregnant with Loyd’s child.

A nearly month-long manhunt for Loyd ended when a woman recognized him shopping at a Walmart and alerted Sgt. Debra Clayton, a 17-year veteran of the Orlando police department, according to police records. Police say Loyd ran behind a pillar when he saw Clayton approaching him outside the store and fired three shots at her. Struck in the hip, Clayton fell as Loyd approached her, continuing to fire. After the fatal shot pierced Clayton’s neck, Loyd “casually” drove away, according to a police account of surveillance footage. He was found nine days later in an abandoned home.

Loyd’s arrest came amid a years-long debate over the legality of Florida’s death penalty statute. The state, which has more than 400 people on death row, has not been able to execute anyone since January of last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court said that the state’s statute was too broad. A new statute was signed into law earlier this year.

While some victims’ families want prosecutors to seek death, others dread the years of court proceedings that such a case is guaranteed to bring.

“You have to understand that we want closure,” Stephanie Dixon, Sade’s mother, told reporters in a news conference in support of Ayala. “And with closure doesn’t mean to be dragged in and out of court with appeals and everything else.”

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