The brutal killing of a Florida woman has renewed debate in the state over the use of the death penalty.
Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter on Tuesday to State Attorney Aramis Ayala to confirm that the death penalty was up for consideration in the killing of Janice Zengotita-Torres, a spokeswoman said.
The married mother was abducted and killed on January 8 in a murder-for-hire plot gone awry, the Osceola County Sheriff’s office said.
Three people have been arrested on murder charges in the death of Zengotita-Torres, Sheriff Russ Gibson said. They are accused of killing her even though they realized they had wrongly identified her as the target of their plot.
“Governor Scott sent the letter to confirm that every option is on the table to hold those accused of this horrific crime fully accountable,” spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said in an email.
This isn’t the first time Scott and Ayala – the lead prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties – have tangled over the death penalty.
Ayala made national headlines in 2017 when she announced her office would not seek the death penalty.
A contentious relationship
Florida’s Supreme Court sided with Scott, saying he was within his executive right to reassign the cases. As for Ayala, the court said that by imposing a blanket prohibition of the death penalty instead of judging each case on its own, Ayala was exercising “no discretion at all.”
Ayala said she would follow the court’s ruling. To that end, she created a panel of prosecutors in her office to review each case eligible for the death penalty. She vowed not to interfere with the panel’s decisions and said she expected it to result in some death penalty cases.
Ayala’s office said in October that it would seek the death penalty in the case of a woman accused of robbing and killing two men in a Kissimmee hotel. Prosecutors then missed a deadline to file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty, leading Gov. Scott’s general counsel to send Ayala a strongly-worded letter criticizing the misstep.
The case ended in a plea deal that gave defendant Emerita Mapp a life sentence.
A ‘heinous’ crime
The latest controversy stems from what law enforcement describes as a love triangle that turned into a murder-for-hire plot, leading to the murder of the wrong person.
“I’ve seen a lot of very bizarre, heinous crimes, and this ranks in the top,” Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson said of Zengotita-Torres’ killing.
According to Gibson, Ishnar Marie Lopez-Ramos, 35, moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in December and fell in love with a man already in a relationship with another woman. She enlisted the help of Alexis Ramos and his girlfriend Glorianmarie Quiñones, both 22, to kill her romantic rival, the sheriff said in a January 12 news conference.
The morning of January 8, they waited outside a Ross Department Store for their intended target. Instead, they abducted Zengotita-Torres, Gibson said.
They stole her ATM card and used it to withdraw money from her bank account. When they realized they had the wrong person, they decided to kill her anyway, Gibson said. The suspects bound the victim with zip ties and wrapped her head in duct tape and garbage bags, said Gibson.
“The victim struggled and Alexis began beating the victim until she was unconscious,” Gibson said. They dumped her body in Ormond Beach and disposed of her car, he said.
Lopez-Ramos was arrested on January 12 after she tried to use the stolen ATM card, Gibson said. She gave a full confession and led police to Ramos and Quiñones, who also confessed, he said. The three suspects have been charged with two counts of murder each. Court records did not list defense attorney names or pleas.
“It touches me deeply that one of our citizens was killed in such a manner over a mistaken identification and in the end it appears to be a lovers triangle,” he said. “We are going to put a solid case to send to the state attorneys office to make sure it gets prosecuted to its full extent,” he said.
A process in place
State representative Bob Cortes said the circumstances of the case make it worthy of death penalty consideration. Fearing Ayala may not pursue the death penalty, Cortes asked Gov. Scott to remove her office from the case.
“She has proven her lack of objectivity in seeking appropriate justice in capital cases,” he said in a letter to Scott.
Cortes’ letter, dated January 16, was sent before Scott sent his to Ayala.
In response to Scott’s letter, Ayala said in an email to CNN that her “position and process” for seeking the death penalty “has already been made clear.”
“If there are any changes, I will make it known publicly,” she added.