Meet Aramis Ayala, one of many heroes of the past week.
In November 2016, Ayala became Florida’s first black state attorney by winning the race in one of Florida’s largest judicial circuits. She is one of 20 elected state attorneys in Florida and has considerable authority over issues such as which cases to prosecute in her district, what charges to file, and plea bargaining and sentencing. Throughout her campaign to become state attorney, Ayala emphasized the need to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“Prosecution has been known as, ‘We have evidence, we proved their case, Done,'” she said. “There are black and brown people who receive disparate treatment the way that the law is set up, period.”
Last week, as state attorney, Ayala spoke out publicly against the death penalty, promising not to seek it in future cases.
Ayala defended her decision in several ways. She referred to research that showed that the death penalty does not benefit society: it does not deter violent crime, it does not protect law enforcement officers from violence, and it costs more than life imprisonment (because of litigation and other costs). In the specific case of Florida, the death penalty “has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil.” Ayala also noted that Florida law gives her “the discretion of whether or not to seek it.” And most impressively of all, she said that she would not “[make] the severity of sentences the index of [her] effectiveness.”
For background, Florida is quite enthusiastic about the death penalty – it ranks second in the US in terms of the number of death row inmates. But Florida’s death penalty has come under considerable scrutiny over the last 15 months. In early 2016, it was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme court because it allowed judges – rather than juries – too much input in sentencing someone to death. Then, in October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence someone to death without unanimous jury support. Until then, Florida was one of the only states in the US that allowed a non-unanimous jury to sentence someone to death. But the state’s 20 elected prosecutors must decide what to do about the the large number of Florida death row inmates who had previously been sentenced by non-unanimous juries.
Ayala’s announcement – and the possibility that her decision could impact a high-profile murder case, which involved a death of a police officer – caused a firestorm. Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott took it upon himself to intervene and asked Ayala to recuse herself from prosecuting the case. When she declined to do so, Scott issued a statement that Ayala had “made it clear that she will not fight for justice,” and also issued an executive order to forcibly remove her and replace her with a prosecutor from another jurisdiction (at least, he did not say that she “betrayed” him). The Attorney General of Florida, Pam Bondi, called Ayala’s move “a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law” (hmmmm…).
The Intercept provides a summary of the backlash against Ayala (while noting that her decision last week was not unexpected and completely consistent with her campaign rhetoric). It involves racism, pettiness, hysteria and plenty of mansplaining. Here’s an excerpt:
“It’s not just the governor’s office that has gone after Ayala.
A finance director in the Seminole County courts office, Stan McCullars, was suspended after he posted racially charged messages on Facebook. “Maybe SHE should get the death penalty,” he wrote. “She should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.”
Other elected state’s attorneys felt the need to issue a statement saying they would certainly continue to seek the death penalty in qualified cases. State lawmakers have proposed slashing the budget for Ayala’s office as punishment. And Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon has suggested Scott should permanently remove Ayala from office.
“In responding to lawlessness, I think that the Governor should use the laws as they are in every way to stop lawlessness if it is possible,” Plakon said.”
Meanwhile, Ayala has her own backers (including “100 of the country’s best legal minds”), and has filed a motion to stay on the case.
(Image via Ayala’s campaign FB page)