For most head prosecutors, re-election is a virtual guarantee. But Jeff Ashton, the State Attorney in Florida's 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Orlando, is already fighting tooth and nail to keep his job after only one term in office.
Aramis Ayala, a former assistant state attorney, is running against Ashton in Tuesday's Democratic primary. Ayala is a former prosecutor, a cancer survivor, an experienced lawyer, and a woman of color. She's also married to someone with a criminal record.
From Ayala's campaign:
David Ayala’s early story is much like that of many young defendants. Born in 1973, David would seek out his biological father at age 12. His first run-ins with the law were as a child, where he learned how to sell narcotics in juvenile detention. He would later be arrested in New York and Pennsylvania, serving prison sentences for drug conspiracy and counterfeiting checks. Though ultimately sentenced to 10 years, David was released to a halfway house in October 2006, after serving 7 years.
This history may be interesting, but it certainly shouldn't be damaging. Millions of people in America— especially people of color— have personal involvement with the criminal justice system or have a close family member or friend who does. In a criminal justice system as punishing and racially-disparate as ours, this is simply a reality. Why should those people affected by the system not be involved in its improvement?
Yet, in what is both a disappointing and predictable reality, any nuance regarding David Ayala's record has been lost on local news. Earlier this week, news station WMTV broke the news about David Ayala's record in a dramatic and error-filled video. They claim he was charged with a gun-related offense, which Aramis Ayala's campaign categorically denies. She also denies their report that he was federally charged in New York for crack cocaine. From her statement:
It appears WFTV identified the wrong David Ayala in one of the cases they presented.
Hours before the false information aired, the Ayala campaign had sent a statement detailing specific charges (none of them gun-related) for which David Ayala had served time a decade ago, along with David’s birth year.
This makes the reason why WFTV decided to spread false information about Aramis’ husband especially puzzling.
Falsely accusing someone of having felony criminal charges on their record is careless at best, and if WMTV is wrong, they should issue a retraction. But even setting the report's veracity aside, this attack is shameful at baseline. It's another disappointing indication of the long road ahead for criminal justice reform has to go.
David Ayala got out of jail ten years ago after serving time on non-violent charges. And yet, the WMTV news team's discussion of him is static – he's a felon, then and now. This is how America and much of American media treats those who have been involved in the criminal justice system—as incorrigible criminals without the capacity for change.
Aramis Ayala has spoken out in defense of her husband calling him a great spouse and a great father to their two young girls. She's denounced the attacks and has directly implicated Ashton as involved in their coordination.
If Ashton had a role in these attacks, the hypocrisy alone is notable. Last year, Ashton admitted to being a member of AshleyMadison.com, a website for those looking to have an extra-marital affair. He also admitted to visiting the website while at the office. Ashton's indiscretion was solely moral – there were no charges brought against him – yet it was indiscretion on the tax-payer's dime. Given his misbehavior, the fact that he is purportedly behind these attacks on Ayala's character, questioning her fitness to serve because her spouse has a criminal record, seems bold.
But the problem goes beyond politics. That she even has to defend herself is yet more proof that Americans are still stuck in the same problematic paradigms. David Ayala has worked to move beyond his past actions, and has been clear that his past is not his present. Why should these charges define him for the rest of his life?
And why is it that WMTV and Ashton think Aramis Ayala is less equipped to be head prosecutor because of her husband's history – a history that happened before the two even met? The truth is just the opposite – prosecutor's offices need leadership from people who have personal experience with mass incarceration and criminalization. America remains the most incarceratory nation in the world. How can we reform our criminal justice system without a full understanding from all parties of mass incarceration's effect on individuals, families, and communities? David Ayala has a story similar to literally millions of Americans. Part of the reason that we have a deep-rooted problem with police and prosecutors in America is because stories like his are absent from the inner circles of many law enforcement officials.
Such attacks indicate that Ashton is desperate. He should be.
Ashton hasn't exactly been a rousing success in the office. Sources close to his office say Ashton has been a poor manager, prone to cronyism, and often unprofessionally loses his temper. But internal climate aside, the numbers indicate Ashton's office is among the worst in the state.
His jurisdiction has the highest acquittal rate in the Florida – around 43% - and the lowest conviction rate. (The acquittal rate only includes acquittal at trial, whereas the conviction rate includes guilty verdicts and guilty pleas.) The other districts in Florida all have a conviction rate of 83% or higher, but in Ashton's office the number is 73%. In other words, he's the worst by a full ten percentage points.
That low number indicates that either Ashton is prosecuting too many unwinnable cases, or his attorneys have not been sufficiently trained. Ayala has also criticized his removal of the office's intake process, which previously sorted out which cases had merit and which didn't.
Ayala has an opportunity to win this primary on Tuesday. If she does, it will be a reflection of her position on the issues and Ashton's internal failures.
Regardless of the outcome, though, the attacks on her husband are disappointing. If we want a better criminal justice system, we need law enforcement and prosecutors who are willing to rethink the way they perceive defendants and the formerly incarcerated. So far, it looks like the only person in this race with that level of perspective is Ayala.