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Florida has executed hundreds of people since 1924. Could Aramis Ayala finally put an end to it? 

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click to enlarge PHOTO BU JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bu Joey Roulette

There's no question Ayala has ignited the discourse around capital punishment in Florida, but abolishing it completely is more complicated. The state's sentencing law has been used to execute hundreds of people since 1924, and despite its having been declared unconstitutional several times, lawmakers and governors have chosen to work out the kinks as they come. Still, some say the embattled prosecutor's decision is a sign that Florida's days of legalized killing are numbered. For civil rights attorney Natalie Jackson, the movement sparked by the "darling of progressives" could end the death penalty not only in Florida, but the rest of the country.

"I think she believes in justice and she believes in doing the right thing," Jackson says. "I don't think she's going to waver from it. The death penalty has been on its way out for the past 20 years. Aramis might have just dealt it the death blow."

"A little more bloodthirsty."

The death penalty scheme in Florida has been on wobbly footing for some time, since well before Ayala's decision.

The last blow against it came in a surprisingly scathing dissent from Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry before his retirement last December. The state court was listening to an appeal from Mark James Asay, a white supremacist whose lawyers argued he shouldn't be on death row because his sentence was unconstitutional under the guidelines set in the 2016 case Hurst v. Florida.

The U.S. Supreme Court found in Hurst that Florida's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it allowed judges, instead of juries, to find the aggravating circumstances and ultimately impose the death penalty. State lawmakers tried to fix the problem last year by requiring juries to find those factors, and by requiring 10 out of 12 jurors to recommend a death sentence, instead of a simple majority. The Florida Supreme Court struck down that revision as well, saying a jury had to be unanimous on capital punishment, a decision that could require the resentencing of hundreds of inmates on death row.

Asay, who was convicted of randomly shooting one black man to death and then murdering a black transgender woman who was a sex worker on one night in 1987, was denied a resentencing by the majority of Florida justices because his case came before the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Hurst was based on. In his dissent, Perry noted Asay would be the first person executed in Florida for killing a black person. A study on Florida executions by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found both black and white convicts were more likely to face the death penalty for killing white victims, despite these victims figuring in just a little more than half of all homicide cases.

"It does not escape me that Mark Asay is a terrible bigot whose hate crimes are some of the most deplorable this state has seen in recent history," Perry wrote. "However, it is my sworn duty to uphold the Constitution of this state and of these United States and not to ensure retribution against those whose crimes I find personally offensive."

Perry said the "arbitrary" ruling was unconstitutional because it created two groups of similarly situated people. If, for example, Asay had committed his crimes in 2002, his case would be eligible.

"As my retirement approaches, I feel compelled to follow other justices who, in the twilight of their judicial careers, determined to no longer 'tinker with the machinery of death,'" Perry wrote. "The majority's decision today leads me to declare that I no longer believe that there is a method of which the State can avail itself to impose the death penalty in a constitutional manner."

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