April 9, 2017
Sometimes courageous and prescient individuals are ahead of their time and can even change history. In 1986 Florida Gov. Leroy Collins said, “Citizens of Florida, I say the death penalty is Florida’s gutter of shame. We have more people in jails and prisons than all but a few states. These are signs of failure.”
In 1994 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said “the death penalty experiment has failed” and that it was time for the Court to abandon the “delusion” that capital punishment could be consistent with the Constitution.
In 2001 Martha Barnett, then outgoing president of the American Bar Association, declared the system of capital punishment “absolutely unacceptable” and urged political leaders to heed the group’s call for a national moratorium on its use.
In 2013 Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte wrote, “I greatly fear that, when history looks back on our system in the years hence, people will ask, ‘Why was it that the United States – unlike all other nations in Western Civilization – maintained capital punishment even when there was such clear evidence of its arbitrary application?’”
And Florida legislators return to Tallahassee year after year to tinker away, trying to fix the broken death machine.
This year the Legislature passed a bill that will require unanimous jury verdicts in the penalty phase of murder trials. Gov. Scott quickly signed it, with his spokeswoman saying that his foremost concern is always for the victims.
But State Rep. Joseph Geller voted against the unanimous jury bill.
“I don’t think it’s a deterrent,” Geller said. “I don’t think it stops people. But most importantly, I don’t believe in it because I think it is morally and ethically wrong for the State to take lives.”
The governor and the Legislature assert that killing people for their crimes will bring closure to the victims’ families. The opposite is true. When the perpetrator of the crime is sentenced to life in prison without parole, the families get closure. It’s over and done.
But a death sentence provides the perpetrator with lawyers and investigators paid for by you, the taxpayer. Appeals go on year after year, bringing anything but closure to these families.
The American Bar Association has reported that a Florida death sentence case costs approximately $2.5 million more than a life sentence. End the death penalty and you end the appeals paid for by your tax dollars.
And now comes Aramis Ayala, the first African-American elected state attorney in the state of Florida. She announced her office in Orange and Osceola Counties will not pursue the death penalty. She says it is not in the best interest of the community or in the best interest of justice.
“While the South, including Florida, accounts for around 80 percent of executions, we also have the highest murder rate,” she said. “This does not describe deterrence.”
Gov. Scott immediately removed her from a high profile case and there have been calls for her dismissal. We support Ayala’s stand against the death penalty and believe she is on the right side of history.
Sheila Meehan is on the board of Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty, the oldest anti-death penalty organization in the state.
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New to the Job, 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. “It would be wonderful if they spoke out and we could have a louder voice.”
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.
She instead emphasized during her campaign that she would engage with average citizens if elected. She acknowledged that her husband had served time in prison for drug conspiracy and counterfeiting checks years ago.
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.”
Ayala’s campaign was helped by a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros. The committee gave Ayala’s campaign almost $1 million, as well as millions of dollars to candidates in local races around the nation.
When asked if the donations influenced her decision, she said it did not.
Florida has 381 inmates on death and shows no sign of slowing down future prosecutions. The other State Attorneys in Florida issued a statement Friday saying they would continue to seek the death penalty.
Rafael Zaldivar, whose son was murdered in Orlando in 2012, said Ayala’s decision is part of a political agenda and has no place in the State Attorney’s Office. He demanded her resignation.
“She is an activist. She isn’t a prosecutor. She has an agenda,” said Zaldivar, whose son’s killer was sentenced to death in 2015. Questions over Florida’s death penalty law have cast doubt over the sentence. His case is currently on appeal.
After Ayala announced her decision, Gov. Rick Scott transferred the case of Markeith Loyd from her authority to another State Attorney in a neighboring district. Loyd is charged in the killing of police Lt. Debra Clayton, as well as Sade Dixon, who was Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend.
Dixon’s mother said she supported Ayala’s decision, saying the death penalty would drag out the process for her family.
“I would love for him to die right now, but that isn’t going to happen,” Stephanie Dixon-Daniels said at a news conference outside the Orange County Courthouse.
Ayala’s decision could play into any future political aspirations. In California, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris faced similar circumstances a dozen years ago when she decided not to pursue the death penalty against a man accused of killing a San Francisco police officer. Harris went on to become the state’s attorney general and a U.S. senator.