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Anti-Death Penalty Prosecutor Proud To Challenge Status Quo

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Renato Sago
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida's first African American state attorney says she's proud to have challenged the status quo with her opposition to the death penalty, even though she eventually lost a legal fight with Florida's governor on the matter. 

State Attorney Aramis Ayala told The Associated Press on Wednesday that her decision not to seek reelection next year was made after the Florida Supreme Court sided with former Gov. Rick Scott in their 2017 legal clash.

"I wavered back and forth," said Ayala, a Democrat who was elected to office in 2016.

Ayala, intentionally or not, thrust herself into the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement when she announced in early 2017 that her office would no longer seek the death penalty because of its cost and failure to deter crime. The decision came as somewhat of a surprise since she hadn't mentioned it during the campaign.

Scott, a Republican, responded by reassigning her office's death penalty cases to a prosecutor in a neighboring district, and top Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee announced budget cuts to Ayala's office.

Ayala took the fight all the way to Florida's highest court, which sided with the governor.

The top prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties in metro Orlando said the court's definition of justice didn't comport with the oath she had taken to administer her office in a just manner.

"I knew it was going to be difficult to come back after that," Ayala said.

Ayala announced Tuesday on her Facebook page that she would be only a one-term state attorney. She said she hasn't decided what she'll do when she leaves office in early 2021, but she promised to be as involved on the job as she was before she decided to not seek reelection.

Among her top priorities are partnering with law enforcement to create new programs that deter gun violence. Ayala said she was proud of criminal justice reforms she had made, such as setting up a unit to look at possible wrongful convictions and no longer requesting monetary bail bonds for defendants accused of low-level crimes.

"I'm really proud about the ability to introduce new ideas and reforms without ever compromising public safety," Ayala said. "It's about the impact we can have. It's about being anchored in justice. Having friends along the way, isn't the goal."