In an escalating dispute over the death penalty cases in Florida, Governor Rick Scott has removed Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala from 21 more cases from District 9 to a special prosecutor. The governor’s spokeswoman said in a statement “State Attorney Ayala’s complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice,” Ayala’s office, in response, is saying Scott blindsided her and is calling the decision an abuse of power.
All of the cases removed from Ayala have been reassigned to State Attorney Brad King. Ayala has filed a motion in state circuit court indicating her intent to challenge Scott’s decision and disputing the governor’s authority to remove her simply because he disagrees with her valid exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
Ayala, an elected prosecutor in central Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, took office in January, to begin a four-year term. In March, Ayala announced she would no longer seek the death penalty in any murder cases, including in the case of Markeith Loyd, who’s accused of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and then Orlando police officer Debra Clayton. Scott removed Ayala from that case shortly after.
Her decision sparked an outcry with many Republican leaders claiming Ayala violated her oath of office by taking the death penalty off the table. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called Ayala’s move “a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law,” while members of the state legislature threatened to reduce her office’s funding.
There were also some who backed Ayala’s decision including more than 100 judges, former prosecutors and legal experts who have expressed their support for Ayala, saying Scott has overstepped his legal authority by removing her from cases, and saying she has the legal discretion to not seek the death penalty.
Capital punishment remains legal in 31 states, but death penalty sentences have dropped dramatically over the past few decades. Of the nation’s 2,300 prosecutors, only 27 sentenced a person to death last year. Capital punishment in Florida has been on hold since Jan. 12 when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s sentencing system as a violation of a defendant’s right to a jury trial. Florida’s old law allowed a jury to recommend the death penalty by a simple majority vote. Every other state with the death penalty except for Delaware requires juries to be unanimous in recommending a sentence of death.
In March, Governor Scott attempted to restart executions last month by signing a bill which took effect immediately-that requires jury recommendations to be unanimous before a death penalty can be imposed by a judge. After signing the legislature, Scott said he hopes that executions could soon resume in Florida. “My foremost concern is always for the victims and their loved ones,” Scott’s statement said. “I hope this legislation will allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve.”