In Worrell’s suspension by DeSantis, Ayala sees echoes from her own tenure as state attorney

When Aramis Ayala decided to run for Orange-Osceola state attorney in 2016, she had no idea that no Black person had ever held the position in any circuit in the state.

She said her campaign was about three-quarters through before anyone even thought to ask if she could be the first. And even when she realized winning would be historic, she didn’t think her skin color would be a defining factor of her time in office.

“I wasn’t running to be the first Black state attorney,” she said. “I was running to pursue justice and to redefine justice in a way that spoke more to those who are directly impacted.”

Then she won.

Days after she entered office in January 2017, Ayala found herself in a feud with then-Gov. Rick Scott over her opposition to seeking the death penalty in all cases, including that of a man who killed an Orlando police officer. Scott slashed her office budget and removed her from dozens of capital punishment cases, reassigning them to a new prosecutor.

Elected on a progressive platform, Ayala spent much of her term in conflict with Scott and Central Florida’s law enforcement leaders, who saw the policies she adopted – in her view, to combat mass incarceration and racially unequal justice – as soft on crime.

The tension became a theme of her time in office. Last week, it brought the term of the woman who replaced her to an early end.

Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended from office State Attorney Monique Worrell, a friend of Ayala’s and fellow progressive who she endorsed in 2020. The governor said Worrell had been “clearly and fundamentally derelict” in her duties and failed to adequately prosecute violent crimes, repeat offenders and juveniles, echoing criticism from Scott, who following a February shooting spree in Pine Hills called for firings in her office.

Ayala reflected on her time in office in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, seated at a small metal table outside City Hall in downtown Orlando while, feet away, Worrell addressed a crowd who had gathered to support her following her suspension.

Demonstrators hold signs during a Rally for Democracy at Orlando City Hall, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Orlando, Fla. The rally was in response to Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Monique Worrell's suspension by Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Demonstrators hold signs during a Rally for Democracy at Orlando City Hall, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Orlando, Fla. The rally was in response to Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Monique Worrell’s suspension by Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Ayala said she believes at least some of the opposition to her decision-making happened because she is a Black woman with progressive ideas about criminal justice reform and police accountability.

“Before people like me were elected to take these seats, there was never a question about prosecutorial discretion,” she said. “As a matter of fact, all the law review articles, all of the university research, talked about how they had so much unfettered discretion and that was just the nature of prosecution. Now that the face and the heart of prosecution has changed, now we have to be so leery of what our discretion looks like and now you want to take discretion away.”

Worrell, acknowledging the parallels between her experience as state attorney and Ayala’s, said it isn’t lost on her that she is only the second Black woman to hold her position and is also now the second to face criticism and discipline from the Republican governor in office.

“The first one who held [this position] had some governor problems as well,” Worrell said. “It seems like every time a Black woman is elected, the governor needs to tell her how to do her job and that is a problem.”

‘I wasn’t expecting it’

Ayala, too, faced calls for her suspension – a punishment usually reserved for elected officials accused of crimes or other wrongdoing, not disagreements in political ideology – as well as public criticism from local law enforcement leaders, something Worrell has also faced.

In 2018, a Republican state representative from Altamonte Springs called for her removal after she decided not to pursue the death penalty in a murder-for-hire case. In 2020, yet another case was removed from her office, this time by DeSantis, after then-Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson wrote a letter to the governor accusing Ayala of withholding evidence in a homicide case to avoid seeking death.

Ayala called Gibson’s accusations “complete blatant lies.”

In a press conference on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty as a sentence in any case brought before the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida, Thursday, March 16, 2017. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel) 2578720
In a press conference on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty as a sentence in any case on Thursday, March 16, 2017. The announcement would prompt then-Gov. Rick Scott to reassign murder cases from Ayala’s office to the Fifth Judicial Circuit. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel) 2578720

Meanwhile, the racism Ayala faced from members of the public was undeniable.

Ayala was sent a noose in the mail, she was repeatedly called racial slurs, she received death threats and a Seminole County Clerk of Court’s employee wrote on Facebook that she should be “tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.”

“To be clear, I wasn’t expecting it,” she said of the backlash she faced from both public officials and residents who disagreed with her politics. “I had a very innocent and true vision of justice and I was naïve enough to believe that we all wanted justice.”

Worrell’s suspension came after months of scrutiny and criticism from DeSantis, Scott, law enforcement leaders and police unions, all accusing her of being “soft on crime” and questioning her charging and bail decisions.

Orange County Sheriff John Mina questioned Worrell’s handling of cases involving repeat offenders last year and again in February after three people were killed and two others were injured in a shooting spree in Pine Hills. In March, Osceola County Sheriff Marcos López held a press conference to object to what he described as Worrell’s failure to aggressively prosecute drug trafficking cases.

Worrell has previously accused both Mina and López of feeding information to the governor to build a case against her, which both sheriffs denied.

Melba Pearson, a criminal justice professor at Florida International University and a longtime Miami-Dade County prosecutor, said though few Black women across the nation have held similar positions, many of them have faced similar hardships. She said fundraising alone can be a challenge and the difficulties don’t stop once these women make it into office.

“Just from the starting block, Black females who are running to be elected to be prosecutors are often slow at the start, not due to a lack of ability but just due to perception, which causes funders to stay on the sidelines and makes it harder to get into that seat,” said Pearson, who ran unsuccessfully for Miami-Dade State Attorney in 2020. “Then once you’ve gotten into that seat, now, there’s that excessive scrutiny.”

The examples are not difficult to find.

Former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner accused city officials and the local police union of conspiring to have her removed from office. In Chicago, Kim Foxx, the first Black woman to serve as Cook County State Attorney, faced accusations of being too soft on crime and a rally by white nationalists in 2019 calling for her to be removed from office. Marilyn Mosby, former lead prosecutor in Baltimore faced similar scrutiny as she attempted to prosecute a group of police officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s death.

Gardner resigned. Foxx chose not to seek reelection after two terms. Mosby lost her reelection bid.

“This is one of the things that you know is coming and you think that you can prepare for it but how do you prepare for hate in action,” said Ayala, who chose not to run for reelection after a single term. “How do you prepare for the oppression that you see coming? The ability to prepare for abuse is impossible because you don’t know what it’s going to look like. Even if you’ve experienced it in your life because of your demographic — being a woman, being a Black woman — it doesn’t make it easier each time.”

Ayala: Bain should resign

A year before DeSantis suspended Worrell, he removed from office Andrew Warren, the elected state attorney for Hillsborough County. Though Warren is white, Ayala said his progressive politics make race a factor in his suspension, too.

“The policies that support Black people, Black freedom, Black justice, and fights the injustice, that’s what the attack is on,” she said. “So when you look at Andrew Warren and his policies in Tampa, those policies addressed the systemic racism in our system, it’s about the policies.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Bain, the judge chosen by DeSantis to take over Worrell’s role as state attorney, is Black, but his early actions in office and membership in the conservative Federalist Society suggest his political leanings are more in line with those of the state’s predominately white, Republican lawmakers.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to Ayala’s claims, instead saying Worrell was suspended for “neglect of duty and incompetence” and citing the governor’s previous claims that she failed to seek adequate punishment for gun charges, drug trafficking and minors who commit crimes.

Who is Andrew Bain? Federalist Society judge picked by DeSantis to replace Monique Worrell

“Our office will aim to be transparent while strengthening partnerships with local law enforcement to ensure public trust and hold those who break the law accountable for their actions in a manner consistent with Florida law,” Jason Gunn, spokesperson for the State Attorney’s Office, said in a statement. “We seek to unify this community rather than divide it.  We will prioritize our commitment to public safety, justice for victims, and restoration of offenders who have served their debts to society.”

Ayala, pointing to Bain’s decision to immediately end diversion programs meant to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail, said this choice does nothing to assuage her concerns over the way Black women have been treated in office.

She said Bain was chosen “strictly for optics” to dull the concerns of those who fear racist motivations led to Worrell’s suspension.

Ayala called on Bain to resign.

“He can call a press conference and he can say ‘I’m not going to support the oppression and the destruction of our criminal justice system and I resign this appointment,’” she said. “That’s what he can do. Because the reality is the minute that you accept that appointment, you have gone along with the problem, you have cosigned it, you have agreed with it and fallen in line instead of being the person who’s leading the change.”

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