Aramis Ayala, the Central Florida prosecutor who made national headlines two years ago when she attempted to unilaterally end the death penalty in her circuit, announced today that she would not run for re-election to a second term.
Ayala was elected in 2016 as the State Attorney for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit to be the head prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties, which includes Orlando, the theme parks, and the University of Central Florida. She defeated her predecessor Jeff Ashton, infamous from his role as a prosecutor who lost the Casey Anthony murder trial and for having his name pop up on the Ashley Madison client list. Her four-year term is set to expire in 2020.
Ashton and Ayala were both Democrats, and the only other candidate in the race was a write-in, making the 2016 Democratic primary essentially the general election contest. Ayala campaigned as a practical-minded moderate who promised to increase transparency at the State Attorney’s Office (SAO). She won the support of a number of prominent Central Florida Republicans and easily defeated the scandal-plagued Ashton, becoming the first African-American State Attorney to be elected in Florida.
Her tone abruptly changed after the election. Liberal billionaire activist George Soros had included Ayala’s campaign in a number of local races he supported around the country, and he had poured nearly a million dollars into a PAC that bought TV ads and mail pieces to promote her election. Florida election law allows unlimited contributions and expenditures to certain types of state-based PACs, and also allows them to communicate and coordinate directly with candidates they support.
Once she took office, Ayala purged several long-term Assistant State Attorneys (ASAs) from the SAO and replaced them with her loyalists. Then, a bombshell in March 2017: Ayala announced that she was opposed to the death penalty and her office would refuse to pursue it in all cases moving forward. Leaked emails and texts showed Ayala had been coordinating her communications strategy with several Soros-backed anti-death penalty groups.
Ayala’s position was even more controversial because of the case she chose to trigger her announcement: Markeith Loyd, who was accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando police Lieutenant Debra Clayton. Clayton was attempting to arrest Loyd for the murder of his ex-girlfriend when he shot and killed her, the incident captured by a nearby Walmart’s surveillance camera.
The video and other evidence created a strong case for prosecutors and the identities of the victims — a pregnant woman and a police officer — made Loyd a very unsympathetic figure for leniency. Local police were outraged that Ayala refused to pursue the ultimate penalty against a cop killer.
Former Florida State Rep. Bob Cortes (R) led the public charge against Ayala, and quickly found a receptive ear in then-Gov. Rick Scott (R). Scott issued an executive order reassigning capital cases from the Ninth Circuit to the Fifth Circuit (Ocala), led by State Attorney Brad King (R).
Ayala filed a lawsuit challenging Scott’s executive order but was ultimately smacked down by the Florida Supreme Court, which issued a 5-2 ruling against her.
Justice Al Lawson, writing for the majority, noted that while a State Attorney did in fact have the discretion to decide what penalty to pursue in each individual case brought to the SAO, she could not issue a “blanket refusal” to never seek the death penalty:
…[B]y effectively banning the death penalty in the Ninth Circuit — as opposed to making case-specific determinations as to whether the facts of each death-penalty eligible case justify seeking the death penalty — Ayala 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.
The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling is noteworthy not just for its emphatic language rejecting Ayala’s argument, but for the fact that this was when the court was still dominated by its liberal wing, before Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was able to appoint new justices after taking office in January.
Ayala responded by creating a task force of seven ASAs who would make the death penalty decisions for the SAO moving forward, and they have decided to seek the death penalty for a few cases. This move did little to silence Ayala’s critics. DeSantis, who has not hesitated to revoke other appointments and executive orders issued by Scott, reauthorized Scott’s executive order assigning cases to the Fifth Circuit.
Ayala has continued to show her disdain for the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling and the death penalty, in both public comments and in other more subtle ways. Multiple sources have reported her efforts to cause difficulties for Brad King’s office regarding the cases that were reassigned to the Fifth Circuit, including not wanting to allow them to use any office space in the downtown Orlando SAO headquarters and other delays and inconveniences.
Cortes, the state representative who encouraged Scott to take action, posted on Twitter that he was glad Ayala realized that a State Attorney “cannot change law, only follow it.”
I'm glad she realizes as a SA she cannot change law, only follow it. Her views on DP have had an effect on her decisions and the citizens of the 9th Judicial Circuit. I wish her well. https://t.co/6W7I6sKo0w
— Bob Cortes (@CortesBob) May 28, 2019
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Cortes commented that he was glad to hear Ayala would not run for re-election.
“The point is that she came here trying to rewrite law and she failed,” said Cortes. “That’s the legislature’s purview to write law, and hers is to follow it.”
It’s fair to have a debate about the proper role of the death penalty, agreed Cortes, but a state attorney cannot individually decide to abolish it as a legal remedy. The recent change to Florida law requiring unanimous jury verdicts in order to impose the death penalty was a welcome reform, said Cortes, making it an appropriately challenging verdict to obtain.
The timing of Ayala’s announcement may have political motivations. Generally, candidates for the State Attorney positions are former prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys who may not have held political office before but have experience in the criminal justice system. Orange and Osceola County lean Democratic, and the deadline to register or change party affiliation is one year before the qualifying date, which would be May 1, 2020 for the 2020 State Attorney election.
By waiting until after May 1, 2019 to announce she would not run, potential candidates who might have considered changing their party to a more favorable Democratic affiliation to run for an open seat have missed their chance.
So far, two candidates had previously filed to run for the Ninth Circuit State Attorney: Ryan Williams, a Democrat who was purged out of the SAO in 2017 and then joined Brad King’s office, handling the same cases that were reassigned away from Ayala, and Kevin Morenski, a Republican who has publicly criticized Ayala’s death penalty stance.
Regarding what’s next for Ayala, there are rumors she is considering pursuing a state legislative or Congressional seat, although she will have a tough time finding a favorable district anywhere near her. Challenging her current Congressional representative, Rep. Val Demings (D), would almost certainly flop. Other nearby Democrat-leaning districts are held by Rep. Darren Soto (D) and Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D), both of whom enjoy the strong support of Democrat leadership, the DCCC, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.