Embattled State Attorney Ayala instructed how to conceal death penalty stance, emails show

Email shows discussions between Ayala and anti-death penalty interest groups

ORLANDO, Fla. – In an email obtained exclusively by News 6, a former federal prosecutor and current legal advisory council for the Fair Punishment Project instructed Ayala what not to say at her Feb.16 press conference. The email is dated Feb. 14.

"I wanted to send on a few thoughts along the lines of what we discussed earlier this evening," Miriam Krinsky wrote to Ayala. "In addressing the upcoming case, I think it is important to not say anything that will create push back or counter pressure before you are ready to announce, while also being careful to not say anything that could be viewed as counter to what you later end up rolling out."

Krinsky, executive director of the Fair and Just Persecution in California, also suggested "messaging bullet points" for the then-upcoming press conference, such as:

"You nonetheless take to heart your responsibility as a state's attorney to make your own independent judgment as to where you come out."

"You will be examining this issue over the coming month as it applies to this case and others and will announce that decision when you have had the opportunity to give it the careful and thorough analysis it deserves."

A February email to State Attorney Ayala from Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution.

Krinsky listed questions and answers that Ayala might face from reporters:

Question: "What do you intend to do as part of your deliberative process in the coming weeks on this issue?

Answer: "I'm listening, and I'm weighing all of the evidence."

Question: "Whom do you intend to consult with?"

Answer: "To the extent possible, try to stay away from specifics without sounding evasive. Just keep coming back to your message - you will consult with staff, look at the law and also talk with key impacted individuals."

Ayala faced reporters on Feb.16 in front of the courthouse and read off additional charges against accused-killer Markeith Loyd.

"We are eagerly anticipating a new statue from the Legislature," Ayala said. "At that point we will evaluate and determine whether we are seeking death on Markeith Loyd." 

One month later, Ayala told reporters she would not pursue the death penalty against Loyd after "extensive painstaking thought and consideration" because it was "not in the best interest of this community or in the best interest of justice."

Two other people were copied on the February email, Rob Smith, a former law professor and the director of Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, and Stefanie Faucher, whose email address ends with 8thamendment.org, a site proclaiming in bold letters "The death penalty is unconstitutional."

Smith also serves as the litigation director for the 8th Amendment Project.

[READ: Learn about anti death-penalty groups linked to State Attorney Aramis Ayala]

Ayala's public information officer did not answer News 6's questions about if Ayala if it was inappropriate to share case information with outside groups.

"As State Attorney Ayala has repeatedly said, from the time she took office she has been extensively researching the death penalty speaking to people including her executive team and organizations on all sides of the issue who are involved with the criminal justice system," wrote spokesperson Eryka Washington in an email to News 6. "State Attorney Ayala went through a process researching and consulting with people on all sides of the issue and made a decision shortly before her announcement on March 16th.”

“From the time she took office she has been extensively researching the death penalty speaking to people including her Executive Team and organizations on all sides of the issue who are involved with the criminal justice system."

When News 6 showed the father of a murdered teenager the email, he said he was not surprised.

"She was obviously preparing and they were coaching her what to say and what not to say, like they were expecting she was not going to apply the death penalty," said Rafael Zaldivar, father of Alex Zaldivar. "She has outside pressures from these particular groups and it's really shocking because she is the top cop in this town and I believe she's being influenced."

Bessman Okafor murdered Alex Zaldivar in 2012. Okafor was convicted and sentenced to death but now Rafael Zaldivar worries Ayala will reduce Okafor's sentence to life in prison.

"I need to fight for my son, she's not fighting for my son, not Debra Clayton," said Zaldivar. "Why is she having these conversations with these people? She is the top cop in Central Florida. Why does she need to talk to them about? Why are they telling her you need to say this or that, be careful what you say."

Zaldivar wants the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Ayala's phone calls, emails and outside influences.

Florida State Representative Bob Cortes also told News 6 he was not surprised by the emails and wants the governor to remove Ayala.

"She's not acting alone," Cortes said. "There's a larger conspiracy behind her decision [to not seek the death penalty]."

Krimsky, who wrote the email, did not respond to direct questions about if it was inappropriate for Ayala to share case details with her. 

"I spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and in the intervening years have lectured, taught at law schools, and worked on a variety of criminal justice reforms in areas including law enforcement and juvenile justice issues," Krimsky said. "I currently serve as the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution -- a project that provides guidance, research, information and assistance to recently elected prosecutors around the nation (including State Attorney Ayala) committed to change, innovation and promoting smart and fair criminal justice policies and practices. As part of that work, we network with and share expertise and information with prosecutors, national experts, academicians and others on a wide array of criminal justice issues."

Smith, copied on the email, also did not directly answer questions.

"The Fair Punishment Project is a research institute with a mission to create a fair and accountable justice system through the promotion of public discourse, the dissemination of information, and educational initiatives," Smith said in a statement to News 6. "We provide research and information to the public, academics, and decision-makers through reports, articles, pleadings, and by speaking directly with a variety of actors and stakeholders, including public defenders, prosecutors, and legislators among others."

Last week, Governor Rick Scott removed Ayala from 23 death penalty cases in the Orange / Osceola district.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.