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Florida’s first black state attorney defends opposition to death penalty

Aramis Ayala told a group at a Wednesday St. Petersburg Legacy Week event that she doesn’t regret her announcement against the death penalty.
Aramis Ayala, state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, speaks with an attendee following her keynote address at the Center for Health Equity in St. Petersburg as part of the 2020 Legacy Week. [ALLISON ROSS  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Aramis Ayala, state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, speaks with an attendee following her keynote address at the Center for Health Equity in St. Petersburg as part of the 2020 Legacy Week. [ALLISON ROSS | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 12
Updated Feb. 12

ST. PETERSBURG — The way Aramis Ayala sees it, there are two types of people who want to be state attorneys: those who love the law, and those who love justice.

You can’t be both, Ayala says, because laws are not always just.

“When we rest what we do on the law, we have missed the concept of justice,” said Ayala, the outgoing state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties.

Ayala, the state’s first black elected prosecutor, has garnered praise and notoriety for some of her initiatives that have bucked the traditional tough-on-crime philosophy. In particular, she fanned a national debate when she announced early in her term that she would not seek the death penalty in any cases, becoming one of the faces of reform prosecutors who have embraced criminal justice alternatives to capital punishment.

Related: Aramis Ayala defends stance against death penalty: 'I did what I believe was proper'

On Wednesday, Ayala gave an impassioned, defiant speech to a group of about 80 people at the Center for Health Equity in St. Petersburg as part of Legacy Week, a yearly celebration during Black History Month of African American culture, history and success.

While she said she has not decided what she plans to do next — she is not seeking re-election to a second term — she defended and promoted the work she’d done since her 2016 election. She cited, for instance, the Brady policy she put in place to try to better flag unreliable witnesses including police officers, her creation of a conviction integrity unit and her implementation of bail reform that would allow some defendants accused of more minor crimes to be released on their own recognizance.

“When we treat people like human beings, we begin to propagate human beings,” she told the group, to applause.

Ayala, 45, is best known nationally for her stance against the death penalty and the backlash that came with it. In 2017, then-Gov. Rick Scott removed her from dozens of death penalty cases and reassigned them to Ocala-based State Attorney Brad King. That included the case of Markeith Loyd, who was charged with killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer.

Ayala fought the reassignments but lost in the Florida Supreme Court. She then set up a death penalty review panel in her office to evaluate when capital punishment should be sought.

Ayala on Wednesday said she knew the police officer who had been killed by Loyd, and said that her first inclination was to seek the death penalty. When she researched the death penalty, she changed her mind, saying she concluded it had no public safety benefit and does not achieve justice.

Recently, Gov. Ron DeSantis echoed his predecessor and pulled Ayala from the high-profile murder of Nicole Montalvo after a complaint from the Osceola County sheriff over how she was handling the case. DeSantis, in an executive order, wrote that the sheriff believed that Ayala’s “opposition to the death penalty has interfered with the appropriate pursuit of homicide charges.”

The Rev. J.C. Pritchett II, president of Legacy Week, said he wanted Ayala to speak at this year’s lecture in part because of her beliefs about equity and her courage.

Before bringing Ayala on stage, Pritchett shared widely publicized footage that had been shot by bodycam video of Ayala being pulled over on a traffic stop in 2017, months after her controversial announcement about the death penalty.

Related: Meet Aramis Ayala: the Florida state attorney everyone is talking about

Asked later during the event about that stop, Ayala said she was concerned for her life, saying she’d previously received threats from law enforcement officers and others for her announcement about not seeking the death penalty.

She also told the crowd that she realized that “no matter how big you get, no matter how high you go, you’re still a woman, you’re still black and they will remind you that in how they treat you."

Responding to a question in the audience, Ayala said she has no regrets about how she has handled things while in office.

“I made a promise when I left office that I would still be able to recognize the person in the mirror and I would never compromise myself in the name of reelection,” she said.

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