Recusal, Removal, Rallies And The Debate Over Death Penalty Relevance
BY DEVIN HEFLIN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
The latest happenings in State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s battle against the Governor and Florida legislature have refueled the once dormant debate on capital punishment, caused questions of race and calls for examination of systemic fairness.
Six days after the death penalty was given new life in the sunshine state by Senate Bill 280, State Attorney Ayala made public her sentiments that she would not seek the death penalty for any capital cases that entered her Orange-Osceola County office.
Ayala’s subsequent removal from the case of accused killer Markeith Loyd by Governor Rick Scott has sparked discussion on political discretion, the use of executive powers and the usage of capital punishment.
Both advocates of the death penalty and antagonists of the death penalty have taken to the public to rally for their cause.
“What we’re looking at is fundamentally humanity’s efforts to prove that they can trump God’s justice.” Said Father Jabriel Ballantine, in his opening remarks on the panel, “What’s Going On?” which was hosted at Rejoice in the Lord Ministries in Apopka, FL.
The panel discussion explored the death penalty and the legality of Gov. Scott’s removal of Ayala from the Loyd case.
“We are debating whether or not our justice trumps God’s justice or determination of a person. We have a scripture which says that God does not wish death but that man would repent and live.” Ballantine said.
“Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president Florida State Conference NAACP.
Florida Death Row Statistics, by the Numbers
|Total White Males
|Total Black Males
|Total Other Males
|Total White Females
|Total Black Females
|Total Other Females
White males comprise fifty-eight percent of inmates on Florida’s death row, while Black men constitute forty-one percent of inmates on death row.
The state of Florida was the second state behind Alabama to reinstitute capital punishment in 1973, after the US Supreme Court ruled usage of the death penalty “unconstitutional” the decade prior.
Black men who have had their cases overturned, or were exonerated from Florida’s death row:
-David Keaton Florida Conviction: 1971, Charges Dismissed: 1973
Keaton was granted a new trial based on new evidence. The true killer was captured and Keaton was released.
-Freddie Pitts Florida Conviction: 1963, Pardoned: 1975
Freed after new physical evidence and an eye witness testimony was released.
-Delbert Tibbs Florida Conviction: 1974, Charges Dismissed: 1977
Originally convicted by an all-white jury, Tibbs was released due to lack of evidence and new witness testimony.
-Anibal Jarramillo Florida Conviction: 1981, Charges Dismissed: 1982
Released after it was discovered evidence against him was not legally sufficient to generate a verdict.
-Anthony Brown Florida Conviction: 1983, Acquitted: 1986
Released after a witness admitted to perjury.
-James Richardson Florida Conviction: 1968, Charges Dismissed:1989
Released after he was accused of using an insurance policy which hadn’t existed at the time and year of the crime.
According to the Florida Center for Capital Punishment, sixty-percent of Orange and Osceola voters prefer some version of life in prison over the death penalty as the punishment for murder. Only 31% said the death penalty was their preferred choice--a result that is consistent with declining support for the death penalty nationwide and previous polling results in Florida.
Three-quarters of Democrats (76%), and a plurality of Republicans (49%) preferred life sentences over the death penalty.
A majority of voters (52%) think the state attorney should consider factors such as the impact on the victims’ families, the high cost, and lack of public safety benefit in deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Fifty percent of voters also believe the state attorney should consider the costs associated with retrying death penalty cases that will be eligible for new sentencing hearings because the sentences were not imposed unanimously. Only 39 percent of respondents opposed considering the cost of retrials.
There are twenty elected state attorneys which serve the state of Florida in their respective areas. The principal duties of state attorneys are usually mandated by law and include representing the State in all criminal trials for crimes which occurred in the state's attorney's geographical jurisdiction.
Their duties generally include charging crimes through information and/or grand jury indictments. After levying criminal charges, the state's attorney will then prosecute those charged with a crime, which includes conducting discovery, plea bargaining, and trial.
In some jurisdictions, a state attorney may act as chief counsel for city police, county police, state police and all state law enforcement agencies within the state's attorney's jurisdiction.
One hundred and fifty attorneys throughout the state of Florida have written the Governor’s office in support of Ayala. They have released a collaborate statement, decreeing that,” Governor Scott has acted outside of his authority and power of his office in unlawfully removing State Attorney Ayala.”
Aramis Ayala,41, who has made history as the first elected Black State Attorney in the Sunshine state has subsequently made history a second time for her stance on capital punishment, which has opened a historical debate as old as the state itself, which was the first state to reinstate the death penalty after its original deregulation in the early 1970s.
“We work hand in hand with law enforcement. Without proper funding, our collaborative work with police agencies will be drastically impacted.” State Attorney Ayala said.
The NAACP and additional supporters of Ayala organized the “Rally in Tally”, designed to bring busloads of people from Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami-Dade, Broward and Pensacola to the Florida state capitol to give Gov. Rick Scott a petition demanding that he allow Ayala to do her job.
Three hundred supporters comprised of organizations, clergy and dignitaries arrived in Tallahassee to defend Ayala’s right to prosecute her way. “Why has no white attorney been singled out like this before?” Bill Proctor, Leon County Commissioner said.
"When you are an elected official and we go to the polls, we demonstrate our power, and then you, as the governor, decide to take the power away from the people, we will not stand for that!" said T.J. Cole, a community organizer and founder of Orlando Black Voice.
In Orlando on the same day of the Tallahassee protests, a smaller group of protestors defended Gov. Scott’s actions and called for Ayala’s full removal. Thirteen protestors, including former Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, gathered with families of murder victims in front of Orange County Courthouse in Orlando.
“There is plenty of opposition to Ayala’s decision in the community. Law enforcement groups in particular have decried it.” said Beary. “I don’t really give a hoot in hell about 200 protesters up in Tallahassee.”
Of all the cases this office handles, less than .01% are death penalty cases. The other 99.99% include non-capital homicides, sexual batteries, sex crimes against children, domestic violence, drug and human trafficking, carjackings, robberies, burglaries, DUI’s thefts, aggravated assaults, batteries and other violent and non-violent crimes.
Former State Attorney Jeff Ashton posted a Facebook message last week which supported a Change.Org petition that calls for Ayala’s full removal from office.
“She’s not doing what’s right.” Ashton said. “As a Prosecutor, your job is to ensure that the law is carried out, not carried out how you interpret it.”
The State Attorney’s office reported that the impact of cutting 1.3 million dollars and eliminating 21 positions would severely impact this agency’s ability to effectively prosecute crimes, threaten public safety and ultimately have an economic impact on the central Florida community.
Opponents of the State Attorney have referred to Article 5, Section 17 of the Florida State Constitution, which they say proves the Governor has the right to remove any elected official which isn’t fulfilling their duty.
However, in the March 20 motion filed by Ayala’s office, the State Attorney countered using the same Article 5, Section 17, which, as one reads further, states that a state attorney retains all power over charging and prosecutorial decisions.
The section goes on to say that the State Attorney shall be the prosecuting officer over all trials in that circuit and shall perform other duties as described by general law.
In part thirteen of her motion, Ayala cited Florida Statute 27.14, which says that a Governor can only remove a State Attorney if said Governor deems that justice will not be exercised. Ayala maintains life imprisonment, through her discretion as justice against Loyd, not the death penalty.
As of April 11, Ayala has filed a new motion, which will reach the Florida Supreme Court and Federal Courts.
“We stand with our State Attorney and we stand against this abuse of power.” Beverly Neal, President of the Orange County Branch NAACP said.