Aramis Ayala keeps making history, first as the first African-American state attorney in the known history of Florida, when her election in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit became official in November; and second, as what some call a Florida justice reform pioneer yet others call a reckless politician undermining the rule of law; after she announced in March she would not pursue capital punishment prosecutions in her jurisdiction of Orange and Osceola counties. She’s now in a high-profile, high-stakes litigation battle with Gov. Rick Scott in front of the Florida Supreme Court, over her authority to refuse capital punishment prosecutions, and his authority to consequently reassign her cases to other state attorneys. Through all of it, she still must run the state’s third biggest criminal prosecution agency.
Orlando-Rising: Did you ever imagine your decision to refuse to seek death penalties would erupt into such legal, political, and cultural firestorms?
Aramis Ayala: I know the death penalty is extremely controversial and evokes emotion from both people who are for and against it. As I stated on steps of Orange County Courthouse when I made my announcement, what is NOT controversial is the evidence that led me to my decision. If I require the attorneys in my office to manage cases based on evidence, I must follow the same evidence-based approach when implementing policies.
I would have expected research from the legislators that challenged the validity of findings prior to cutting $1.3 million from my office budget. An evidence-based decision should have a response that is evidence based… not emotional or political.
What I did not anticipate is the governor overstepping his authority by inserting himself in a prosecutorial decision and removing 23 cases from my office. I believe what Gov. Scott has done is an attack on the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution, the rule of law, the separation of powers and our criminal justice system. Scott’s move is unprecedented and solely based on his own political beliefs. Prosecutors exercise discretion every day and anticipating the governor’s unlawful action should not be part of the process.
I did not anticipate the Legislature cutting my office budget $1.3 million and eliminating 21 positions from my office. This move will severely impact this agency’s ability to effectively prosecute crimes, threaten public safety, and ultimately have an economic impact on the Central Florida community. We work hand in hand with law enforcement. Without proper funding, our collaborative work with police agencies will be drastically impacted.
I also did not anticipate racist responses including someone sending a noose to my office because they disagree with how my administration will handle death penalty cases.
OR: The Florida legislature said, essentially, that if you’re not going to pursue death penalties, which are expensive cases, you won’t need as much money, and so took $1.3 million from your office in next year’s budget. How would that affect your operations?
Ayala: To be clear less than .01 percent of all cases in the 9th Circuit are death penalty cases. The other 99.9 percent include non-capital homicides, sexual batteries, sex crimes against children, domestic violence, drug and human trafficking, carjackings, robberies, burglaries, DUI’s thefts, aggravated assaults, batteries, and other violent and non-violent crimes.
It is also important to note… my office will also be footing the bill for every single case Scott removed from this office. Florida Statute 27.15 requires all expenses and costs incurred by any gubernatorial re-assignment to be paid for by the circuit receiving the assistance. As such, the 9th Circuit will pay any and all costs and expenses as required by law from its existing budget appropriation.
The impact of cutting $1.3 million and eliminating 21 positions will have a devastating effect on existing efforts to prosecute widespread human trafficking and domestic violence offenders in this circuit.
As one of the biggest tourism hotspots in the world, Orlando is a prime location for human trafficking, ranking third in the nation, and first in the state.
In 2016, out of 378 child human trafficking reports in Central Florida (11 counties), Orange County alone reported more than 138 of those instances.
Without affirmative action, victims of human trafficking are nearly impossible to identify (due to their own unawareness, denial, fear, substance abuse, lack of support, etc.)
Victims of human trafficking are extremely distrusting of law enforcement/government officials and are rarely cooperative in criminal investigations to provide key witness testimony for the prosecution of their trafficker[s].
Lack of witness testimony results in cases being dropped or charged as lesser offenses, e.g. lewd and lascivious behavior, a second-degree felony. As such, human traffickers often return to the community to continue trafficking without consequence.
This circuit has assigned dedicated human trafficking prosecutors who are trained on the characteristics of human trafficking and victim abuse to increase successful 1st-degree felony convictions of human traffickers, and decrease the number of cases that are dropped or improperly prosecuted. In 2015, the 9th Circuit was the first circuit to ever secure a life sentence conviction for a human trafficker in the state of Florida.
This circuit has dedicated victim advocates who are trained to screen and identify human trafficking victims, provide resources for food, shelter, child care, etc., and provide daily hands-on counseling to navigate each victim through the legal process, and ultimately to trial. Victim advocates must possess a special skill set to foster trusting relationships with human trafficking victims to ensure that victims follow-through with the prosecution of their trafficker.
The 9th Circuit Human Trafficking unit is the only one of its kind in the State of Florida, as it collaborates with several local law enforcement agencies and non-governmental agencies to proactively investigate human trafficking.
The 9th Circuit has 23 ongoing human trafficking investigations and 15 cases pending prosecution. This unit has also handled 209 sex trafficking tips, 13 labor trafficking tips ,and has rescued 21 human trafficking victims.
If these funds are not continuing, the human trafficking epidemic in the 9th Circuit will continue to grow in this Circuit at an exponential rate.
For the past ten years, and through two administrations, 98 percent of all domestic violence cases charged in the 9th Circuit were dropped.
Similar to human trafficking victims, domestic violence victims rarely participate in the prosecution of their batterers, resulting in failed prosecutions.
Orange County’s domestic violence cases contribute 20 to 30 percent of all homicides.
In 2014, the 9th Circuit handled close to 300 domestic violence cases than in 2013.
This circuit has created a specialized domestic violence unit wherein dedicated, and highly experienced prosecutors appear before domestic violence judges, and more paralegals are available to review and investigate case submissions and timely file criminal cases. This results in faster charging decisions and greater accountability for the perpetrators of domestic violence.
Also, like human trafficking, dedicated victim advocates are used to provide daily hands-on counseling to navigate each victim through the legal process, and ultimately to trial. Likewise, victim advocates must possess a special skill set to foster trusting relationships with domestic violence victims to ensure that victims follow-through with the prosecution of their abuser.
In the three months since the commencement of the 9th Circuit’s domestic violence unit, there has been a 13.5 percent increase in domestic violence cases filed, a 7.8 percent decrease in cases “no billed”, and the average length of time to make a filing decision on domestic violence felony arrest cases has decreased by almost two weeks, a time period that is crucial in sensitive domestic violence matters.
Without adequate staffing, these employees would have high caseloads, and not be able to sufficiently focus on domestic violence cases to successfully work with the victim to bring the cases to trial.
All of the information cited above was presented to legislators, and they still decided to cut my budget $1.3 million and eliminate 21 positions.
OR: You and your staff still have hundreds of non-capital criminal cases to prosecute. How does all the controversy affect your and your staff’s focus?
Ayala: The attorneys and support staff who work in my office are committed to the successful and just prosecution of cases in our circuit. The views of the staff are not monolithic, some individuals support my decision and other don’t. However, we all work to keep the wheels of justice turning and doing so means remaining focused on the work that we do to keep this community safe.
OR: What’s your most effective way to unwind?
Ayala: I enjoy spending time with my family, loved ones and close friends. I also enjoy cooking, music, and traveling. Unwinding is easiest for me through reading, meditation and prayer.
OR: Have you or anyone on your staff or campaign had any contact with George Soros or his representatives, who ran an independent election campaign on your behalf, and who oppose capital punishment?
Ayala: No, I do not know George Soros nor have I ever spoken to Mr. Soros.
While campaigning for this position, I was running on a platform centered around justice reform and integrity. I wanted to bring change to the office. I talked about eliminating racial disparities, and I advocated for smarter data-driven policies to improve public safety. I understand that Mr. Soros invested in around a dozen prosecutor campaigns across the country, both Republicans and Democrats, as supporters and opponents to the death penalty. He supported candidates like myself who were committed to bringing change and reform to prosecution. My values and goals were very clear before Mr. Soros ever supported my campaign. I appreciate the support he gave, but I never solicited it nor did it change my platform.
I, like other candidates running for office in Florida and around the country like Governor Scott, received a donation from organizations that supported my platform. That is nothing new- yet my critics like to raise this issue because they think it somehow undermines my decision. It does not.
OR: What in this job has brought you the most joy, satisfaction, and pride?
Ayala: I have only been at the job six months. I am still embracing the opportunity to serve the people of Orange and Osceola counties. I am proud to bring fresh ideas that are evidence based and as I find joy in doing what is right no matter how popular or appealing. As I said in my inaugural address on January 6, I will not play it safe; I will always play it fair.
I take pride in my oath, the law of this great state, the discretion granted by the Constitution and my mission to seek justice in a way that is fair, objective, and descent. I am proud to follow the guidance of the American Bar Association as it relates to prosecutors.