Prosecutors vow to keep seeking death sentences

- A day after a newly elected prosecutor said she would not seek the death penalty in capital cases, the remainder of Florida's 20 state attorneys affirmed Friday they intend to pursue death sentences when appropriate.

The statement by the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association came as a number of African-American leaders declared their support for 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who sparked a statewide outcry Thursday over her decision not to seek the death penalty in the case of accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd --- or in any other case.

Within hours of her announcement Thursday, an outraged Gov. Rick Scott reassigned the case of Loyd --- accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and shooting an Orlando police officer execution-style --- to Brad King, an Ocala-area state attorney who is an outspoken proponent of the death penalty.

On Friday, prosecutors other than Ayala voted to "affirm the responsibility of enforcing the laws of Florida," which they maintain is "paramount to our oath of office."

"Throughout 19 of the 20 circuits of Florida, the death penalty will continue to be sought in those cases which qualify for its implementation," the association said in a statement provided to The News Service of Florida after the vote. "The victims' families of Florida deserve our dedication to implement all the laws of Florida. That is why the people of Florida have elected us."

Ayala's office participated in the conference call but did not vote, a source with the prosecutors said.

The vote by the association came after Orlando-area black church leaders and death-penalty opponents, including the mother of a woman allegedly slain by Loyd, offered a show of support Friday for Ayala, who ousted incumbent Jeff Ashton in a Democratic primary in August.

Speaking to reporters Thursday about her decision not to pursue the death penalty, Ayala --- the first black elected state attorney in Florida --- cited research showing death sentences are not a deterrent to crime, are prohibitively costly and do a disservice to victims' families, who may wait decades without seeing those convicted of killing their loved ones finally executed.

Pursuing the death penalty "is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice," Ayala, whose circuit is made up of Orange and Osceola counties, said Thursday.

Her decision infuriated a number of Republican lawmakers and elected officials, including Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, but, coupled with Scott's reassignment of the Loyd case, may elevate Florida's already-embattled death penalty as a civil rights issue in the coming months.

Of the 396 inmates on Death Row, 154 --- or nearly 40 percent --- are black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The ratio of African-Americans awaiting execution is more than double the percentage of blacks in the state's overall population.

As further evidence of the divide, nearly two-thirds of blacks nationally oppose the death penalty, compared with 49 percent support among whites, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last fall.

A coalition of community leaders, most of them African-Americans, held a news conference Friday morning on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse to declare their support for Ayala, who made her announcement at the same location the previous day.

"Studies consistently find right here in Florida troubling racial disparities in how the death sentence is applied," said James T. Morris, pastor of the Carter Tabernacle C.M.E. Church in Orlando. "This sends a troubling message, a message that some lives matter more than others. … You cannot be committed to racial justice and still embrace the death penalty."

Stephanie Dixon, whose pregnant daughter Sade was allegedly gunned down by ex-boyfriend Loyd, endorsed Ayala's decision not to pursue the death penalty in the case but instead to seek a life sentence.

"You have to understand that we want closure. And with closure doesn't mean to be dragged in and out of court with appeals and everything else," Dixon said. "He will never see the light of day again. … If he doesn't die of natural causes, I'm quite sure he will be tortured for his hideous crimes."

For some, Scott's swift removal of Ayala as Loyd's prosecutor came in stark contrast to the drawn-out case of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer accused in 2012 of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, who was black. Scott waited months before appointing a special prosecutor in that Seminole County case.

"I think the facts of this case --- that the prosecutor is black, that the victim is black, the victim's family wanted the death penalty to be waived and the governor appointed a new prosecutor --- clearly (Scott) is overstepping what he should be doing morally, and I can only think he is bowing to the law-enforcement community," said Florida International University law professor Stephen Harper, head of the school's Death Penalty Clinic.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a black Democrat from West Park, blasted Scott for "picking and choosing" when to use his executive authority to override constitutionally elected officials like Ayala.

"It's wrong on so many levels," Jones said in a telephone interview Friday. "I call him out on that now because it's not right. It's not fair and we in the black community we see that as a problem. Shame on the governor for using his powers in this situation, but not using his powers in ways that he should have in others."

Some fear that Scott's removal of Ayala in a high-profile case could have far-reaching political implications, resulting in more prosecutors --- who have discretion in whether to pursue the death penalty --- opting to seek death sentences death due to fear of retaliation.

"Now we have an example of a prosecutor who is supposed to have broad discretion over who they charge, and if they don't exercise discretion in the way that higher government officials approve of, they're removed from their responsibility. And that puts political responsibility on each of the state attorneys," 10th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Rex Dimmig said in a telephone interview Friday. "Unquestionably that is a factor that will be in their mind. The question will be whether or not they're able to exercise their discretion without giving weight to that factor, and that will be a very difficult thing for them to do."

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