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

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  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

Some victims' families were outraged with Ayala's decision, like Rafael Zaldivar, whose son Alex Zaldivar was killed in 2012. His son's convicted murderer, Bessman Okafor, was sentenced to death, but his case is currently before the court because the jury's verdict was not unanimous. Zaldivar doesn't trust Ayala with his son's case, saying, "She should resign, and somebody else should take her place right now." (And in fact, at press time on Monday, April 3, Scott reassigned 21 other first-degree murder cases away from Ayala, including Okafor's.)

Jeff Ashton, the former Orange-Osceola state attorney who lost to Ayala in the Democratic primary, said in a commentary piece in the Orlando Sentinel that had Ayala simply charged Loyd with something else, he would defend her right to do so. But he says Ayala is overreaching in the interpretation of her use of discretion.

"Instead of following the dictates of the statute and exercising appropriate discretion in that evaluation, she has unilaterally decided to throw out the entire system," Ashton wrote. "Progressives applaud this decision as brave because they like the outcome. I ask them to imagine the chaos if every prosecutor were to decide to pick and choose those laws to follow and those to ignore. Perhaps the next law to be ignored would be one you would miss. Adherence to the statute is mandatory, morons."

Miles Mulrain Jr. says his friend Sade Dixon was a sweet, lovable mother of two. He is upset by her murder, but agrees with Dixon's mother, Stephanie Dixon-Daniels, who just wants closure in the death of her daughter.

"I would love for him to die right now, but that's not going to happen," Dixon-Daniels said at rally supporting Ayala. "He will die in prison. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. Thou shall not commit murder. ... I also want him to pay for his hideous crimes of killing my daughter's and his unborn child."

Mulrain, a local organizer in Orlando, says the community elected Ayala and trusts her judgment.

"I'm not a fan of the death penalty, but to be honest, I feel like it's something that can go either way," he says. "It's not black and white. But I do believe in change, and I do believe for that last 80 years, our system has been messed up. I trust State Attorney Ayala to try to get a different result."

"You can't just do what you want to do."

The crowd was already quieting down under the hot sun when T.J. Legacy-Cole got to the podium, but he wasn't having it.

After all, Legacy-Cole and the activists coming from Orlando had gotten up early, boarding a charter bus single-file around 6:30 a.m. for a four-hour trip to Tallahassee. More than any other group that gathered outside the Florida Capitol last week, they had the most stakes in the game. Like Loyd, Dixon and Clayton, they mostly live in the black communities on the west side of Orlando that includes Pine Hills, Ocoee and Apopka. Last November, they overwhelmingly elected Ayala in huge majorities.

After the governor removed Ayala from the Loyd case, conservative lawmakers, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, asked him to go further and suspend her. A Seminole County Clerk's Office employee resigned after being suspended for saying on Facebook Ayala should be "tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree." And Republican legislators proposed cutting the Ninth District State Attorney's Office budget by almost $1.3 million and 21 positions, a tactic seemingly meant to punish Ayala for not wanting to pursue the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Ayala's critics have pounced on her for not disclosing to voters before her 2016 election that she opposed the death penalty. Legacy-Cole, who supported Ayala during the primary, says she wasn't given much of a chance to air concerns she had with the statute because her incumbent opponent Jeff Ashton would not debate her.

So when Legacy-Cole got on the podium, the organizer brought all the people from his bus with him so the crowd could see them. They clamored past hundreds in chairs to get to the front and raise their fists toward the sky.

"We voted for State Attorney Aramis Ayala and we stand by her!" he shouted into the mic. "Not to give her a blank check, because we believe in holding all elected officials accountable. But when you are an elected official and we go to the polls, we demonstrate our power. And when you, as the governor decide to take the power away from the people, we will not stand for that!"

The debate sparked by Ayala's decision questions how far lawmakers are willing to give in to the demand for Loyd's death. In a letter, more than 100 legal experts from around the U.S. say Scott's decision to remove Ayala from the Loyd case and replace her with Ocala-based State Attorney Brad King is a "dangerous precedent."

"The governor picking and choosing how criminal cases are prosecuted, charged or handled in local matters is troubling as a matter of policy and practice," the letter says. "Indeed, there appears to be no precedent in Florida for this type of use of power."

Scott Sundby, a law professor specializing in death penalty and criminal law at the University of Miami, says the authority Scott used to remove Ayala for "good and sufficient" cause is usually meant for conflict of interest cases, not instances where they have differing policy judgments.

"It's absolutely not justified," Sundby says. "The governor's office seems to be disenfranchising local voters. We could have a system where the governor appointed prosecutors, but in this instance he's trying to take a shortcut rather than go through the legal process of amending the constitution. If anyone would be operating outside the law, it's the governor's office."

Sundby adds that people should be concerned about the departure from constitutional norms, regardless of the case. "There is an electoral process, and we don't want empirical dictates coming from Tallahassee that bypass the democratic process – that's anti-American," he says.

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