When did state attorney make death penalty decision?

Aramis Ayala considered officer's murder before announcement, says lawyer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala's private lawyer stood before the Florida Supreme Court Wednesday, he argued that his client had no legal obligation to consider the facts of a homicide before making a decision about whether to seek the death penalty.

"The law is very clear here," Roy Austin told reporters after the hearing. "There's nothing that requires it to be a case-by-case decision, and there's nothing in the law that requires her to seek the death penalty."

Yet despite that belief, Austin claims Ayala did consider facts about accused cop killer Markeith Loyd and six other suspected murderers before concluding her office would not seek the death penalty in any case.

"She has looked at every case so far that she's made a decision on," Austin said.

A News 6 investigation is raising questions about the timing of Ayala's decision to not pursue capital punishment and her attorney's claims that the state attorney took into account the slaying of Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton.

During the March 16 news conference in which Ayala announced she would not be seeking the death penalty in cases handled by her office, the state attorney suggested she reached that conclusion less than three days earlier.

"It would be premature for me to take a position before a statute has been enacted," Ayala said.

She was referring to a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott on March 13 requiring juries to unanimously recommend the death penalty before a judge can impose that sentence.

Yet emails obtained by News 6 suggest Ayala may have been planning the announcement shortly after taking office.

On Jan. 27, about three weeks after Ayala was sworn in as state attorney, she received an email from an adviser.

Copied on the email were representatives from two organizations that oppose the death penalty, Stefanie Faucher and Rob Smith.

"Stef has some great ideas (along with Rob) around how to roll out, support and message your announcement," the message states.

The sender of that email, former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky, appears to ask Ayala about her previous comments about the death penalty.

"I think you were planning to send on your prior statement on the DP," Krinsky wrote. "It would be really helpful to see that."

Ayala has declined News 6's multiple requests for an interview and has not responded to numerous questions emailed to her office over the past two months, including questions about the timing of her death penalty decision.

Following the Florida Supreme Court hearing Monday, News 6 once again attempted to ask Ayala and her attorney about the January email suggesting an announcement about the death penalty was in the works.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand your question," Austin said.

As a News 6 reporter attempted to rephrase and clarify the question, the attorney interrupted.

"Let me take another question," Austin said as he turned his head away from the News 6 reporter.

Minutes later, News 6 again asked about the timing of Ayala's decision to not seek the death penalty.

The attorney provided a vague response. "It was made after she became state attorney. It was made after she became state attorney.

That has been consistent," Austin replied as he began to step away from the reporters gathered outside the courthouse.  "I do need to leave. But thank you so much for your time everyone."

If Ayala was already planning her announcement about the death penalty by Jan. 27, as the email suggests, then Ayala had very little time to consider the facts of the Loyd murder investigation, as her attorney told Florida Supreme Court justices she had done.

Orlando police arrested Loyd Jan. 17, eight days after he allegedly gunned down Clayton outside an Orlando Walmart.

At the time, Loyd was being sought for the Dec. 13 slaying of his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon and her unborn child.

After Ayala announced she would not seek capital punishment, the governor reassigned 24 homicide cases from Ayala's office to a neighboring state attorney's office.

Those cases included the prosecution of Loyd.

Ayala sued Scott, contending he did not have the legal authority to take away cases from an elected state attorney.

During oral arguments in that litigation Wednesday, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente inquired about Ayala's decision not to seek the death penalty against Loyd.

"What did she say about the Loyd case, which is the classic death penalty case, that would lead the governor to believe she was exercising her discretion in that case?" Pariente asked Austin.  "That case involved aggravated facts that no one could argue wouldn't be considered -- quote --'a death penalty case.'"

"Correct, your honor," replied Ayala's attorney, without specifically addressing the justice's question about Loyd.  "But there is nothing in the law that says that discretion has to be solely on the facts of a specific case."

About the Author: