After Death Penalty Ruling, Florida Prosecutor Revives the Option

by | September 5, 2017 AT 10:00 AM

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

After a monthslong legal fight, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala on Friday walked back her ban on pursuing the death penalty, saying a panel of seven assistant state attorneys will review all future first-degree murder cases and seek capital punishment when appropriate.

The announcement came a day after the Florida Supreme Court declined to return 29 capital cases to her office that Gov. Rick Scott took away with executive orders after she announced in March that she would not seek the death penalty for anyone.

"My personal opinion, the facts of the case, none of that changes," Ayala said Friday. " ... When the Supreme Court believes and they interpret the law in a way that may be different from how I interpret it, it is absolutely up to me to abide by that regardless of how I interpret the research and the data."

Ayala said she believes she could petition to get the 29 reassigned cases back. However, Ayala said she does not intend to because she does not want a "ping-pong" effect to impact victims and their families. Two of those cases have gone to trial since March, with both defendants being found guilty and jurors unanimously recommending the death penalty.

"I don't think it is in the best interest of families of homicide victims or their cases at this point," Ayala said. "There's a difference between giving up and letting go. At this time I think the most compassionate and human response is to allow them to remain with the current prosecutor."

She declined to say what she thought about Scott's actions.

"My job here is to follow the law, not to interpret his conduct," Ayala said.

The prosecutors are Chief Assistant State Attorney Deb Barra; Kenneth Nunnelley, who was in charge of many death penalty cases under Ayala's predecessor, Jeff Ashton; Kelly Hicks; Candra Moore; Gabrielle Sanders; and Chris Smith.

The seventh member of the panel will be the prosecutor assigned to each case, who will meet with victims' families. If all seven panel members agree that the death penalty is legally appropriate and feasible, they will pursue it, Ayala said.

Each member has pursued the death penalty before and has not expressed opposition to the death penalty, Ayala said. Two of them _ Barra and Nunnelley _ prosecuted the Orange-Osceola death penalty cases that have gone to trial under Ocala-based State Attorney Brad King in recent months.

In the opinion, Justice C. Alan Lawson said the blanket policy to avoid the death penalty under any circumstance gave Scott a "good and sufficient" reason to reassign the cases. The justices ruled each first degree murder case must be reviewed before a determination about the death penalty is made.

A governor's spokesman on Thursday said he did not have enough information about the panel to know whether Scott will continue to reassign future cases.

"State Attorney Ayala needs to make it clear that her office will seek the death penalty as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate," John Tupps said. "State Attorney Ayala's statement today leaves too much room for interpretation."

(Orlando staff writer Krista Torralva contributed to this report.)

(c)2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)