A group of church and civil rights leaders joined mothers of slaying victims from Florida and Central Florida Friday outside the office of State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
They were there to send a message to her and the community.
“We stand with you, State Attorney Ayala,” proclaimed Christine Henderson of Equal Justice USA of Florida.
She and a dozen other speakers proclaimed that people throughout Florida stand with Ayala for her controversial decision to not pursue death penalty prosecutions in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties. Her decision that the death penalty is unjust for all brought loud and long condemnations Thursday from Gov. Rick Scott down to Orlando Police Chief John Mina.
But on Friday, a tide rolled Ayala’s way.
Among them were three mothers of murder victims who said they share Ayala’s belief that a death sentence does not help some family’s healing, and that the long, drawn-out appeals process can only increase a family’s pain.
Among them was Stephanie Dixon, mother of Sade Dixon, the pregnant girlfriend of Markeith Loyd, who is charged with killing her and Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton.
Loyd’s case is at the center of the Ayala controversy, an alleged heinous pair of murders that sparked widespread anger in Orlando. On Thursday Scott stripped the case away from Ayala and gave it to neighboring State Attorney Brad King.
But Scott did not ask Sade Dixon’s mother, who stands with Ayala
“You have to understand we want closure. And with closure doesn’t mean to be dragged in and out of courts of appeals and anything else,” she said. “So with the death penalty he’s not going to be executed for another 30, 40 years anyway. But he’s going to continue to have the appeals to drag us back in court and relive this violent, hideous act.
“Life in prison, any way it goes, he will die I prison,” she said. “He will never see the light of day. He will never be back in court … This monster will die in prison.”
The procession of supporters included representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, and several local and statewide church and Civil Rights organizations fighting against the death penalty,
“Let us end this cycle of violence and vengeance,” said Deborah Shearer of the Catholic Diocese
It was proceeded by an impromptu press conference by a father of a victim who offered the other view: that some families want the death penalty.
As Ayala supporters gathered to address the media, Rafael Zaldivar, father of slain Alex Zaldivar, took to the microphone stand to denounce Ayala in the name of his fallen son, and to demand the death penalty for convicted murderer, Bessman Okafor. Okafor’s case is among those awaiting a decision by the Florida Supreme Court.
Zaldivar called for Ayala’s resignation, or at least that she not touch Okafor’s case if it is remanded back.
“I cannot allow her to destroy five years of work,” Zaldivar said. “It is not her right to decide for the rest of us. Twelve people must decide that.”
But a few minutes later, the podium was taken by Darlene Farah of Jacksonville, Marietta Jaeger Lane of Punta Gorda, and Dixon of Orlando, all saying that Ayala is offering what they all wanted in their daughter’s cases – the opportunity for swift, sure justice, and healing that does not include revenge.
Jaeger Lane, whose daughter Susie was murdered at age 7 in Montana, said she shared Zaldivar’s desire initially, but moved on.
“As a Florida resident I am extremely proud of State Attorney Ayala’s wisdom,” she said. “In the beginning, I had the normal reactions of rage and seeking revenge. I wanted the killer to die. But in time I came to see what the death penalty is. It is an insult to the victims of the offenders. To kill somebody in my little girl’s name would be to demean and profane my sweet little girl’s name.”
Farah’s case, involving her daughter Shelby Farah, also was high-profile, in Jacksonville. She said she sought life imprisonment without parole from the start, but got that only after Melissa Nelson defeated incumbent State Attorney Angela Corey and agreed to take the plea in January.
“The death penalty harms the surviving families,” Farah said. “We spent three and a half years waiting and the trial hadn’t even started yet because the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty. For the emotional well-being of my family, I did not want them returning for trials and appeals for years, and probably decades.”