|Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala|
Florida's death penalty has been hit by controversy for decades, marred in the past by botched executions and more recently by court rulings condemning the way defendants were sentenced to death.
The latest controversy over Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala's decision not to seek death sentences in capital cases -- and Gov. Rick Scott's removal of her from a case involving an accused cop-killer --- has galvanized longtime opponents of the death penalty.
"This could be the spark that sets it off for a real conversation nationwide, not just in Florida," said retired Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry, an outspoken critic of the state's death penalty system. "Most transformative acts did not take a majority of the people. Only a few people started it, and it gained momentum. This could be one of those moments."
But Senate President Joe Negron said the controversy swirling around the death penalty almost certainly will not diminish lawmakers' support.
"There's a strong consensus that the death penalty is an appropriate sanction for certain horrific murders that are committed," Negron, R-Stuart, said. "I think that when the state is seeking to potentially execute a citizen for his crimes, there should be a very high level of scrutiny and due process. I also think that our current system provides that."
More than a decade ago, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on Florida executions, based on a study that said the system was dogged by problems involving racial disparities, fairness and a lack of oversight. More recent studies have provided additional evidence to bolster criticism of the death penalty in Florida, which leads the nation in death row exonerations.
Florida opponents of the death penalty, including many Democratic legislators, have renewed calls for a moratorium, seeking further review of geographic and racial inequities regarding who is charged with the death penalty and eventually executed.
But with Scott and Republican legislative leaders strongly supporting capital punishment, such a moratorium is unlikely.
"There's no doubt, if you look at national trends, that the Florida Legislature's and governor's office insistence place them in a handful of states that are actively trying to devise a system which is going to produce death sentences," said University of Miami law professor Scott Sundby, who has researched the behavior of juries in death penalty cases.
It's been more than a year since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, put executions on hold and sent the death penalty into a state of limbo.
The U.S. Supreme Court 8-1 ruling in the case in January 2016 found that Florida's system of allowing judges to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.Ayala, the 1st black state attorney elected in Florida, said she reached her conclusion after deciding that "doing so is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice."
But Ayala's decision not to pursue the death penalty for Markeith Loyd -- accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton --- sparked outrage from Republican lawmakers, Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi and resulted in calls for the state attorney's ouster.
The governor reassigned the Loyd case to Brad King, an Ocala-area state attorney who is an outspoken proponent of the death penalty.
For many blacks, especially in Southern states like Florida, the death penalty is rooted in a history of discrimination and remains a stark reminder of lynch mobs. Adding to racial tensions, Florida has never executed a white defendant whose victim was black, something critics are quick to highlight.
"Race has always been an issue in the death penalty, whether it's Florida or anyplace," said Florida International University law professor Stephen Harper, who runs the school's Death Penalty Clinic.
Source: Orlando Sentinel, March 27, 2017
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