This is a good time for my fellow conservative Republicans in Florida to re-evaluate their thinking on the death penalty and the politics that surrounds it in our state. The issue is now at the forefront of our public discourse after Orange/Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced she will not pursue death sentences while in office. The reaction from many of my usual allies on the right perpetuates a stereotype that, quite frankly, doesn’t fit anymore for an increasing number of lifelong conservative GOP stalwarts, such as me.
In the wake of the State Attorney’s announcement, it has seemed as though many Republican elected officials in Florida have been running to a microphone to say how dismayed they are and to express their outrage at her decision to not bring capital charges. But as a Catholic, pro-life, conservative Republican, I have been disappointed by the reaction of Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers.
For starters, elected officials are chosen by the voters to hold a public office and to carry out the duties of that office. The people of Orange and Osceola counties elected Aramis Ayala for a reason, and their decision should be honored, but Gov. Scott appears to be seeking to circumvent Ayala’s discretion and her constituents’ will. This controversy is now about respecting the will of the voters, a fundamental principle of our republic that we as conservatives usually embrace.
Admittedly, the State Attorney didn’t completely articulate her position on the death penalty before the election. However, I always have understood that State Attorneys are empowered to make discretionary decisions like this, on what charges and penalties to pursue. The governor’s actions to remove Ayala from 22 death penalty cases is an overreach by one branch of government into the affairs of another.
I still can’t understand what Ayala has done wrong. What law has she broken? She made a decision that politically disappointed some people, but in my view, she did not do anything that she wasn’t allowed to do under the law. Trampling over the separation of powers outlined in our state constitution, like Governor Scott appears to be doing, is something that conservatives should naturally oppose. State Attorneys across Florida should also be wary of the governor’s move, as well as any action that may also come from the legislature to limit their power.
I have always self-identified as a conservative Republican. I know we are supposed to be ‘law and order’ folks and hold people accountable for their transgressions. However, the reaction to Aramis Ayala’s decision seems to me to be nothing more than political posturing in the name of being “tough on crime.” The truth is, many aspects of the death penalty should offend Florida conservatives.
For me, my view on the death penalty began to shift as I thought more closely on whether I could reconcile it with my core moral and religious values. I knew I was pro-life, and I started to ask myself ‘should I feel different about the death penalty than I do about abortion?’ Given that all life is sacred, even the life of those who commit grave crimes, I no longer could justify the death penalty when there are alternative means (like prison) available to keep society secure.
If conservatives in Florida would just take a minute to think about all the problems with the death penalty, then they might recognize the wisdom of the decision by the duly-elected Orange-Osceola State Attorney. Rather than allow emotion to drive people’s thinking on the death penalty, they should objectively consider its policy failures. It bears a much higher cost than life without parole, and 26 people have been freed from Florida’s death row because they were wrongly convicted.
Although I oppose Democrats like Aramis Ayala on most issues, remaining consistent with my conservative values is more important to me than scoring cheap political points.
As more of my political brethren learn the truth about our capital punishment system, the sooner that demagoguing on the death penalty will be a thing of the past.
Brian Empric is a former vice chairman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans and a past President of the Orange County Young Republicans. Brian works in commercial construction in Central Florida and resides in Windermere.