State Attorney Aramis Ayala: 'I expect panel to seek death'

By Anthony Leone, Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Friday, September 01, 2017, 1:51 PM EDT

In a news conference a day after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Rick Scott has the power to take death-penalty cases away from Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, she outlined what her death-penalty review panel will do. 

After introducing six members of her death-penalty panel Friday morning, Ayala said that each member — all of them work within her office — has sought death in first-degree murder cases. 

"I have chosen this team of experienced prosecutors, who I am extremely confident they will follow the law," she said.

The six prosecutors who make up the death-penalty review panel are: 

  • Gabrielle Sanders
  • Candra Moore 
  • Deborah Barra
  • Kelly Hicks
  • Chris Smith
  • Kenneth Nunnelley

Ayala explained the process of how the panel will recommend seeking the death penalty. The panel will review each case and look at the same factors that a jury looks at that are outlined in the statute. 

The assigned attorney of the case, who is also a part of the panel, will meet with the victim's family, with the next step being that each member must unanimously agree to recommend seeking death, she described, continuing that her office will then file a death notice.

"Every member believes in this panel the death penalty and believes it should be sought, and I expect to be see unanimous decisions to seek death," Ayala said. 

She added that she has no intention to usurp the authority she has granted the panel, which will begin reviewing first-degree murder cases immediately.

Ayala believes that with the panel in place, she could legally get back the nearly 30 cases Scott transferred to State Attorney Brad King, but she said she would not do that.

"It is not in the best interest to the families of homicide victims or their cases at this point. There is a difference between giving up and letting go. At this time, I believe the most compassionate and human response is to allow them to remain with the current prosecutor and not be impacted by any ping-pong effect," she said. 

Ayala stated a number of times that despite what she believes and how she interpreted the law, she will honor Thursday's Florida Supreme Court ruling and will recognize the law. She also added that she believes that her budget, which was slashed by Scott, will be restored since her panel has been created.

In March, Ayala made a blockbuster announcement that she wouldn't seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, the man accused in the shooting deaths of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton, or anyone else charged with first-degree murder.

In April, Ayala filed a federal lawsuit against Scott because he reassigned nearly two dozen death penalty cases.

However, the high court on Thursday stated the governor does have the authority to remove Ayala death-penalty cases.

"The executive orders reassigning death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King do not exceed the Governor's authority on the facts of this case. Therefore, we deny Ayala's petition," the court concluded.

The court stated Ayala's "blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case" shows that she "at best, (has) a misunderstanding of Florida law."

Ayala said that she will respect the Supreme Court's decision, but in a surprising twist, she announced that she plans on creating a death-penalty review panel.

"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 7 well-versed and experienced Assistant State Attorneys. This panel will evaluate each first-degree murder case in the 9th Judicial Circuit," she stated in a news release.

She also said that she believes that with this panel in place, her office will prosecute all first-degree murder cases that happen within her jurisdiction.