ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala has scaled back her decision to not seek the death penalty and instead announced that her office will develop a panel that will consider seeking capital punishment on a case-by-case basis.
The announcement came Thursday afternoon, hours after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to remove Ayala from first-degree murder cases against her will.
Scott and Ayala have been entangled in a legal battle since March 16, when she said her office would not seek the death penalty against accused cop killer Markeith Loyd or any other case her office tries.
Scott responded by issuing a series of executive orders stripping her from 30 first-degree murder cases and reassigning them to neighboring State Attorney Brad King.
King's office is seeking the death penalty against Loyd in his trials in connection with the deaths of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton.
Seven assistant state attorneys will sit on the new Death Penalty Review Panel.
Ayala issued a statement saying she respects the Florida Supreme Court's ruling in her legal battle with Scott:
"The Supreme Court of Florida ruled today that a case-specific determination must be made on first-degree murder cases. To ensure today’s court’s decision is heeded, I have organized a Death Penalty Review Panel comprised of seven well-versed and experienced assistant state attorneys. This panel will evaluate each first-degree murder case in the 9th Judicial Circuit.
"With implementation of this panel, it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly."
The father of an Orange County murder victim does not trust Ayala will follow the recommendations of her office's new death penalty review panel.
"It's a joke. It's a complete joke," said Rafael Zalidvar.
Bessman Okafor, the man convicted of murdering Zaldivar's son Alex, is awaiting a hearing in which he could be sentenced to death. Okafor's case is among those that the governor removed from Ayala's office.
"(The panelists are) going to waste their time," said Zaldivar. "They're going to say, 'Yes. Yes. Yes. Death.' (Ayala's) going to say, 'No, because I don't agree with it.'
Even with the new panel, King's office will continue to prosecute the 29 first-degree murder cases that were reassigned unless Scott orders otherwise, a spokesman said.
Scott's office said Thursday evening that it has no plans to return those cases to Ayala unless she "fully recants her statement that she will not seek the death penalty in any case."
"State Attorney Ayala needs to make it clear that her office will seek the death penalty as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate. State Attorney Ayala’s statement today leaves too much room for interpretation,” Scott's office said in a statement.
It will also be up to Scott to decide whether or not to remove Ayala from future first-degree murder cases.
Roy Austin, Ayala's attorney, said he urges Scott to return the cases to Ayala and continue prosecuting any additional first-degree murder cases within her jurisdiction.
"By setting this (review panel) up, State Attorney Ayala’s action is well within the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling and all cases should be returned to her and no further cases should be removed from her. This gives the Governor the opportunity to return the cases to the people of Orange and Osceola Counties," Austin said.
Two men accused of posing as law enforcement officers while they robbed and fatally shot a man in Kissimmee were charged with first-degree murder on Wednesday. Scott has not yet said if he plans to remove Ayala from that case.
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