State Attorney Ayala's office to seek death penalty for first time

Announcement comes after Ayala lost legal battle with Gov. Rick Scott

By Adrienne Cutway - Web Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. - Officials with the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office announced that they will seek the death penalty against an accused murderer for the first time since State Attorney Aramis Ayala took office earlier this year.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Deborah Barra made the announcement Thursday during the Orange County Bar Association Luncheon. 

She said the death penalty review panel, which was established in September after Ayala lost her legal battle with Gov. Rick Scott, has reviewed all first-degree murder cases the office has received and has made the unanimous decision to pursue the death penalty against one accused murderer.

Barra has not provided details on which first-degree murder suspect will face a death penalty trail. News 6 has contacted the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office for additional information.

This case will be the first one Ayala's office will try since she announced on March 16 that she would not seek the death penalty against accused double-murderer Markeith Loyd or in any other case.

That announcement prompted Scott to issue a series of executive orders stripping Ayala from more than two dozen first-degree murder cases, including Loyd's, and assigning them to neighboring State Attorney Brad King.

Ayala and Scott faced off in the Florida Supreme Court after she challenged his authority to remove her from cases against her will. The justices sided with Scott in a Sept. 1 ruling, and later that same day, Ayala announced that a seven-attorney panel would review all first-degree murder cases to decide if the death penalty is appropriate.

Barra said the panel decided on Wednesday that the death penalty would be sought. There was one other meeting prior to Wednesday's meeting, during which the attorneys established an operating procedure.

Similar to a jury, that panel would need to unanimously agree before capital punishment is sought.

Rafael Zaldivar, a man whose son was murdered to prevent him from testifying in court, spoke to News 6 about how the decision affects families of murder victims. Bessman Okafor, the man convicted of killing Zaldivar's son, was sentenced to death but then had his sentence overturned after Florida changed its death penalty law.

Scott removed Okafor's case from Ayala after his sentence was overturned.

"I don't want her to wreck my son's case. I mean, I'm good now," Zaldivar said. "I don't want the same thing to happen to other families." 

Zaldivar and News 6 legal analyst Steven Kramer both said they believe Ayala created the panel so she wouldn't be directly involved in death penalty decisions.

"What she is saying is her office is pursuing the death penalty and she's putting it in the hands of an objective panel, which she is divested from. She doesn't have a say," Kramer said. "It's in the hands of the panel, so that gives her clean hands..."

He added that the move could be an attempt to "save face" and prevent the state from further slashing her office's budget.

"The moment she came out and made a blanket statement (that) she was not going to pursue the death penalty, she really painted herself into a corner, and part of the problem is that when you look down the road, one of the places it goes is potentially impeachment or removal from office, especially after the (Florida) Supreme Court ruling. So this is a chance to salvage her re-election and maybe even her job," Kramer said.

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