Florida prosecutor takes on anti-death penalty fight
Orlando, Fla. — The Florida prosecutor who thrust herself into the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement is a political novice who was elected just seven months ago.
Aramis Ayala, a Democrat and former public defender and assistant state attorney, surprised many of her own supporters when she announced this week that her office would no longer seek capital punishment in a state that has one of the largest death rows. In response, the state’s Republican governor promptly transferred a potential death penalty case — the killing of a police officer and a pregnant woman earlier this year — to another Florida prosecutor.
“I understand this is a controversial issue but what isn’t controversial is the evidence that led me to my decision,” said Ayala, the first black State Attorney elected in Florida.
She said there is no evidence that shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement, and it’s costly and drags on for years for the victims’ families.
Advocates seeking to abolish the death penalty said Ayala sent a powerful message. Her decision reflects decreasing support for capital punishment in the U.S., said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
“There are some prosecutors who in practice are following her lead. They just haven’t spoken out like she has,” Clifton said.
Ayala spent the first decade or so of her career as an assistant state attorney and public defender. She was a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office for Orange and Osceola counties for about two years before she decided to seek the top job. The county is home to Walt Disney World and other tourist attractions and has grown more liberal over the past two decades.
Ayala was a political newcomer last year when she took on her former boss, then-State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who had been one of the prosecutors in the Casey Anthony case. Anthony was acquitted of murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Ayala didn’t run on an anti-death penalty platform when she campaigned, since at the time Florida’s death penalty law was in question after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. A new death penalty bill was signed into law this week.
Even some of Ayala’s supporters said Friday they were taken aback by her decision.
Lawson Lamar, a former State Attorney and sheriff, who backed her run for office, said: “Anyone who raises their hand and takes the oath to be State Attorney must be able to go with the death penalty even if they feel it’s distasteful.”
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