Eight months after she lit statewide firestorm debates over the death penalty and Florida government separation of powers, and five weeks after she lost those debates in the Florida Supreme Court, Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala appears at peace.
Speaking with a gathering of journalists Thursday morning, the controversial, still-new state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties, said she was settling in to pursue her judicial reform agenda, she was pursuing justice, and she was happy.
“I enjoy my office. I enjoy life. Generally, I’m just a happy person. I don’t say that lightly. I enjoy doing what is right,” Ayala said.
Ayala talked Thursday morning at a meeting of the Central Florida chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She took questions challenging her now-abandoned opposition in her circuit to death penalty prosecutions, yet largely dismissed any political or personal concerns about where that came from or how much it cost.
If she had any regrets about the consternation her previous position or her six-month battle with Gov. Rick Scott and others had caused for anyone, including the families of murder victims, she wasn’t sharing them. Over café con leche at the Melao Bakery in Orlando.
Ayala, who was elected last year, presented herself as a public official who took a stand based on her interpretation of the law, lost, and has since moved on. She characterized the debate as something that had to happen, it did, and now it’s over.
“I had an interesting start,” she said. “The day I took office we were dealing with the death penalty. And unfortunately, a lot of people only know me for that. But there certainly is more to me as a person, as a lawyer, as prosecutor that deals with that,” Ayala said. “But when I took office, the first conversations I had with prosecutors across the state was dealing with the death penalty. We had a statute that had been ruled unconstitutional two times in less than two years, so we knew there was a problem. That was the first week of me taking office. Then we had the deaths locally of two police officers that we had to deal with. We had internal issues with employees, and ultimately we had retaliatory budget cuts.”
Ayala said she supposed her contentedness came from being a cancer survivor, someone who nearly died from lymphoma as a young woman in law school, and then struggled with avascular necrosis. She said that life experience also taught her “the level of accountability. It teaches you that one day we all have to answer and respond to the right that we lived. And I’ve committed to that.”
On Thursday she sought to turn the focus to initiatives she campaigned on – as opposed to the death penalty, which she did not. Those include creation of aggressive teams of prosecutors to deal with domestic violence and human trafficking. Ayala said that she has gotten those promised units up, operating and prosecuting, and getting convictions, despite state budget cuts of $1.3 million for her office, which for all practical purposes eliminated previous domestic violence money, forcing her to redirect funds from elsewhere.
“I’m… looking at the numbers of homicides in our community that are based upon domestic violence,” she said. “I look at the younger the girls are getting, the more they’re being impacted by domestic violence. I’m looking at how domestic violence can tear up an entire community. And we get a lot of it.”
She said her office also moved forward with other reforms, notably a program in which prosecutors get involved with communities, and her juvenile justice “Project No No,” creating new opportunities for young offenders to go through diversion programs without getting criminal records. She said she has recently hired 20 new assistant prosecutors fresh out of law school.