ORLANDO — When Aramis Ayala began campaigning for state attorney in this Central Florida district last year, so few people knew her that she handed out cards informing voters how to pronounce her name.
While she'd worked for eight years as a public defender and nearly two years in the Orlando state attorney's office, she was a political novice seeking public office for the first time. She worried about name recognition in a race against her boss, who had swept into office in 2012 thanks in part to his high-profile role in the infamous Casey Anthony trial. The Michigan native didn't even live in Orange or Osceola counties; she promised to move into the district.
Now, after upsetting popular Democrat Jeff Ashton in the primaries, after clinching the district's top law enforcement job in an unopposed general election, and after becoming Florida's first black state attorney, she shocked the country by announcing she wouldn't pursue the death penalty in capital murder cases.
"I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice," she said March 16, a view she had not expressed publicly during her campaign.
The decision has her in an ongoing legal fight with the governor and prompted the Florida House speaker to say he'd start impeachment proceedings against her if he could.
It also has Floridians wondering who she is.
The newspapers are calling her "embattled," but many here who know Ayala, 42, say her decision hasn't surprised them. They say she is doing what no one before has been brave enough to do in a justice system they view as racially imbalanced.
"She's just what the community needed," said Alisia Adamson Profit, who worked with Ayala in the public defender's office in Orlando. "It's so cool to have a state attorney who has also been a public defender. . . . I think you get a different experience dealing with the victims, the families, the defendants as a public defender. You really learn to respect each side when you get in that place."
Stoking the controversy: The announcement came as Ayala's office was handling the case of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and a police officer trying to capture him in December, then avoiding a police manhunt for nine days.
Gov. Rick Scott asked Ayala to recuse herself from the Loyd case, but she refused. He then reassigned the case to another state attorney, citing a state law that allows the governor to appoint a different prosecutor if there is a "good and sufficient reason."
Besides the governor, she has faced criticism from police unions, prosecutors, and even a Seminole County Clerk of Courts employee who commented on Facebook that "she should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree."
Attorney General Pam Bondi called the position "dangerous" and "a neglect of duty." The two previous Orlando state attorneys blasted the move. Ashton, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, said Ayala seemed excited to try her first capital murder case when she worked for him as a prosecutor in 2015. David Lewis Payne, who authorities said abducted his ex-girlfriend, put her in the trunk of her car then killed her, has yet to go to trial. On March 16, Ayala filed a notice of intent not to seek the death penalty in that case.
And after her announcement, 19 of Florida's 20 state attorneys rebuked Ayala in a statement.
But Ayala's bold — some say "historic" — move is consistent with her character, say those who know her.
"We finally have an elected official who's not afraid to do what's right," said T.J. Legacy-Cole, a community activist and founder of a group called Orange County Black Voice.
"She's a breath of fresh air," said civil rights attorney Natalie Jackson. "She's one of the strongest women I know."
"We are in support of her and we definitely are not in support of what the governor is doing," said Beverlye Colson Neal, president of the Orange County branch of the NAACP, who described Scott's move as a slight. "He didn't have good or sufficient reasons. He never even listened to her. He just outright disregarded her."
Ayala, who leads an office with more than 155 prosecutors who handle about 100,000 cases a year in the state's third-largest district, earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, her master's from the University of Central Florida and her law degree from the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law. She then joined the public defender's office in Orlando, though few of her cases made headlines or even a mention in the local papers.
She ran for state attorney on the promise she would bring back the domestic violence unit and improve relations between law enforcement and the community.
Friends say her eight years as a public defender broadened her empathy and understanding of a system many view as unfair toward minorities. They point to the fact that nearly 39 percent of the 381 death row inmates are black, while blacks make up about 17 percent of the state's population.
In the race for state attorney, Ayala raised about $50,000 in campaign contributions, not even half of the $112,000 raised by Ashton, according to state records. But the financial wild card was liberal billionaire George Soros, who supported several progressive state attorney candidates around the country. Soros poured $1.4 million into a political action committee set up to support Ayala and hamper Ashton. One ad lauded her "plan to remove bias" from the criminal justice system and her belief "in one standard of justice for all."
The barrage of ads worked. Ayala dominated the African-American vote, winning eight of every 10 votes where nonwhite registered Democrats were the majority, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis of voter registration rolls. She captured nearly 57 percent of the 81,801 votes cast in the primary. She easily defeated a write-in challenger in the general election.
While she's received support from the NAACP and the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, which on Thursday called for Scott to rescind his executive order that transferred the case, her friends say her decision was based on research, not race.
They pointed to studies that show the death penalty is not a crime deterrent, costs the state more than imprisoning defendants for life and doesn't provide closure for victims' families.
"I am prohibited from making the severity of sentences the index of my effectiveness," Ayala told reporters the day of her announcement. "Punishment is most effective when it happens consistently and swiftly. Neither describe the death penalty in this state." She added that violent offenders "will never continue to drain resources from this state with decades of appeals."
"Everything is based off policy," said Camara Williams, an Orlando lawyer who met Ayala at Florida A&M College of Law, where she has taught. "It comes down to making the best decision with her, not the decision that's based on what's popular."
In fact, many think her decision could harm her political future.
"It's not a strategic political move," Legacy-Cole said. "That's not her strongest point." But, he said, standing up to the power structure is something that could win even wider support beyond the black community.
Ayala, who wasn't available for an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, is a mother of two and has been married since 2009 to David Ayala, whose criminal past was used against her in advertisements during the campaign. They met in 2007, and their first date was to his Lakeland church for Sunday services. Soon after meeting, David told her of his run-ins with the law as a child, where he learned to sell drugs in juvenile detention. He was later arrested in New York and Pennsylvania and served seven years in prison for drug conspiracy and counterfeiting checks. After prison, he earned an associate's degree in business administration from Valencia Community College, worked at an international telecommunications company and was certified in personal training and exercise therapy.
Ayala said her husband's experience in the system shaped her opinion.
"David's past has given me perspectives into our justice system that my opponent has never had," Ayala said during the campaign.
Those who know Ayala are confident she'll weather the political storm. Several said she is a cancer survivor and is used to dealing with stress. They said they hoped the knee-jerk response to her decision would give way to a more thoughtful debate about the flaws in the death penalty in a court circuit with a population of about 1.6 million people.
"People don't know her," said Williams. "So it's very hurtful for us to watch this."
"If you know her, you're not surprised," Adamson Profit said. "She comes in, assesses the situation, masters it, then takes a leadership role."
On Thursday, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran called on the governor to suspend Ayala and spoke of legislation that would allow lawmakers to impeach state attorneys.
"You can bet your bottom dollar, if we could get that bill passed and it was law right now, we would absolutely start impeachment proceedings on that prosecutor," said Corcoran, R-Lakeland.
Would she give up her position under intense pressure? Jackson doesn't think so.
"I don't see her wavering on this," she said.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.