Death penalty prosecution: How nearby districts compare to Orange-Osceola

Six death notices filed in 5th Circuit, 3 in 7th Circuit , 4 in 18th Circuit

By Louis Bolden - Investigative Reporter, Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - There has been a lot of finger-pointing between Gov. Rick Scott and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala when it comes to the death penalty.

News 6 investigator Louis Bolden took a closer look at how neighboring judicial circuits compare to Ayala's rate of seeking capital punishment.

In March, Ayala announced her office would not seek capital punishment in any case prosecuted by her office. In response, Scott reassigned more than two-dozen potential death penalty cases to neighboring Fifth Judicial District State Attorney Brad King. Ayala unsuccessfully sued the governor, claiming he overstepped his authority by removing cases from her office.

After a legal battle with the governor and a Florida Supreme Court ruling in Scott's favor, Ayala formed a death penalty review panel. Seven prosecutors reviewed the facts of each first-degree murder case to determine if it warrants the death penalty and the panel had to be unanimous, according to Ayala.

News 6 legal analyst Steven Kramer said Ayala needed to set up a panel to regain credibility after initially saying her office would not seek the death penalty in any of its cases.

"From a practical legal perspective, this is probably a smart and sophisticated move, setting up this panel," Kramer said.

Since that change, the Ninth Judicial State Attorney's Office has filed three "notices of intent to seek death," which is not far from the number of death notices filed in neighboring judicial circuits, records show.

In the 18th Judicial Circuit, which includes Brevard and Seminole counties the state attorney has filed four death notices. Three have been filed in the Seventh District of Flagler and Volusia, and six have been filed by King's office in the Fifth Circuit of Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

For comparison, in the Fifth District of Lake, Marion and Sumter, there were 29 murder-related arrests recorded last year, 19 murder arrests in the Seventh District of Flagler and Volusia, 80 murder arrests in the Ninth Judicial District of Orange and Osceola counties and 28 murder arrests in the 18th District of Brevard and Seminole counties, according to the 2016 Florida Department of Law Enforcement annual crime report.

According to the data, the districts with higher populations net more murder arrests, which could also mean more first-degree murder cases prosecuted by state attorneys.

Some of the death notices filed by King's office include cases reassigned by Scott from Ayala's office.

King and 18th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Phil Archer spoke to News 6 about how their offices determine to seek death in first-degree murder cases. Both said they meet with homicide prosecutors about potential capital punishment cases, but that they ultimately make the final decision whether their offices will seek the death penalty.

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