Former State Attorney Jeff Ashton – former boss and then election opponent to current State Attorney Aramis Ayala – said Thursday he believes she might not have legal ground to take the unprecedented “no death penalty” position she announced earlier Thursday.
Ashton also said he believes Ayala may have adopted the position to please her political benefactor, New York progressive activist billionaire George Soros, who ran an independent campaign on her behalf last summer.
Ayala beat Ashton in the Democratic primary last August after she had worked as an assistant state attorney under him in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties.
On Thursday she announced that, after a review of law, she concluded the death penalty is not just for anyone and she would not pursue it in any cases in the circuit, including that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd.
Ashton said her position enters unchartered legal waters for a state attorney, and that he knows of no top prosecutor anywhere who has done so, certainly not in Florida.
“I don’t know, honestly, based on the statute, that she even has the right to do any of this,” he said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com.
Ashton’s position is that Florida statutes, including the new one just approved by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, give prosecutors the discretion to decide whether a case has enough aggravating circumstances to merit a death penalty. He argued they do not give discretion to make a decision about the death penalty without even considering the aggravating circumstances.
He predicted legal challenges to her policy, perhaps by families of victims who want suspects prosecuted for capital crimes. And even though he is a Democrat, Ashton applauded Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi for accusing her Thursday of dereliction of duty, which could be a precursor to attempts to oust her.
“As they should,” he said. “It’s the law. You can’t just pick and chose which laws you will follow.”
Ashton has reason to be bitter about how he lost re-election to a former protege who not only challenged him but questioned his efficiencies, management, and priorities.
Ashton’s beef, however, goes deeper, because of Soros. In the last month before the election, Soros ran a surprise, ugly, third-party, $1.4 million advertising campaign on Ayala’s behalf against Ashton, going so far as to accuse him of racist policies.
Ayala, the first-ever African American elected to the office of state attorney in Florida, denied then and denied Thursday that she had any contact with Soros or anything to do with his campaign for her and against Ashton, or that she owes Soros anything.
Soros has never discussed why he got involved in the race, though he also got involved in at least a half-dozen other elected prosecutor races across the country last year, backing African American candidates in all of them.
Ashton said Ayala’s justifications for abandoning the death penalty “parrot” statements made by Soros’ political committees, such as his Safety and Justice Political Action Committee.
“When you throw in the George Soros money, it smells really bad,” Ashton said of her ban on death penalty prosecutions. “That’s why I suspect it’s purely political.”
While serving under Ashton, Ayala began prosecuting a death penalty case, that of David Payne, suspected of kidnapping an ex-girlfriend and then murdering her in the trunk of her car in late 2015.
Ashton said Ayala was excited about having the opportunity to prosecute the case, though she didn’t stay long enough to do so. A few weeks after receiving the assignment, she resigned to run against him.
But because of that case, Ashton said he was confident that Ayala did not oppose the death penalty. Before she was assigned to that unit, “as a part of that process we discuss with them their feelings about the death penalty,” he said. “She made it very clear to us she didn’t have any qualms about the death penalty.”
The Payne case, still pending, is one of the cases for which Ayala vowed Thursday to withdraw capital charges, and to then prosecute seeking life imprisonment.
Ayala said in her press conference that her conclusions about the death penalty came only recently after reviewing her staff’s analysis of the laws and case history, and that her personal feelings did not factor into her decision.
Ashton, however, claimed she offered no justifications Thursday that provided any new evidence or insight that hasn’t been part of the anti-death-penalty movement’s playbook for decades.