The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida prosecutor refuses to seek death penalty for alleged cop killer, defies Gov. Rick Scott’s order to step aside

Prosecutor Aramis Ayala announces that her office will no longer pursue the death penalty in any case brought before the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida. (Video: Reuters)

State prosecutor Aramis Ayala may have made Florida history last week when she declared publicly and emphatically that she would not, under any circumstances, seek the death penalty.

The audacity of Ayala’s stance, in a state that has been among the heaviest users of capital punishment, was underscored by the first defendant her pledge would affect: Markeith Loyd, who is charged in the slayings of his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, shot execution style.

Within hours of the announcement on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott called on Ayala, state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, to recuse herself from the cases. When she refused, he appointed a special prosecutor to take over — an action critics said was an overreach of executive power.

On Monday, the extraordinary legal standoff got even uglier when Ayala, who previously said she would obey any “lawful order” from the governor, said Scott “overstepped his bounds” by removing her and insinuated she may challenge his legal authority in court.

Uglier still was a Facebook comment from Stan McCullars, the finance director at the Seminole County Clerk of Court and Controller’s Office, who wrote that Ayala “should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree” for her stance.

A letter to Scott signed by more than 100 law professionals, including two former Florida Supreme Court justices, argued the governor’s order was “troubling” and “sets a dangerous precedent.”

Controversy over the death penalty is familiar territory for Floridians. The state was among the country’s top executioners until January 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s death-sentencing scheme. In the year since, lawmakers have rewritten the penalty statute twice to satisfy the Supreme Court, which ruled that Florida gave judges too much power over sentences. The first rewrite was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court, and the second was signed into law by Scott last week.

Florida Supreme Court says hundreds of death row inmates may get new sentences and avoid execution

This history is why Ayala chose not to seek the death penalty against Loyd or anyone else while in office, she said at a news conference.

“Florida’s death penalty has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil,” Ayala said.

The process is financially draining with years of appeals, she said, prolonging closure for the families of victims. She vowed to seek life sentences instead.

Ayala took office in January as Florida’s first African American state attorney and did not state her position on the death penalty during the campaign, reported the Orlando Sentinel. State attorneys in Florida are elected officials responsible for prosecuting crime in 10 districts throughout the state. Ayala’s district, the 9th Circuit, is the third largest in the state and represents 1.4 million people in the culturally diverse greater Orlando area.

Her campaign was bankrolled by liberal New York billionaire George Soros, who pumped tens of thousands of dollars into local prosecutor races across the country last year in an attempt to get African Americans into office, reported Florida Politics.

On the trail, she pledged to amplify the voices of marginalized groups in Orlando, particularly the black community.

Organizations opposed to the death penalty have hailed Ayala’s stance, highlighting data that shows African Americans are disproportionately sentenced to death. Others, reported WUFT, criticized Scott for deploying his executive powers inconsistently, citing the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012. In that case, the governor waited months to appoint a special prosecutor, WUFT reported.

Scott’s position drew a rebuke from more than 100 judges, prosecutors and law professors nationwide.

The governor’s decision, they wrote, “infringes on the vitally important independence of prosecutors, exceeds your authority, undermines the right of residents in Orange and Osceola counties to the services of their elected leaders, and sets a dangerous precedent.”

They said the governor “picking and choosing” how criminal cases are handled in local matters is “troubling as a matter of policy and practice.”

“Indeed,” they wrote, “there appears to be no precedent in Florida for this type of use of power.”

In her filing, Ayala argued that the Florida constitution gives her authority over all prosecutorial decisions. Under state law, she wrote, a governor may only remove a prosecutor if there are “good and sufficient reasons” that “the ends of justice would be served,” reported the News Service of Florida.

Scott told reporters in Tallahassee on Monday that appointing a special prosecutor was the right decision and accused Ayala of flip-flopping on her original statement that she would recuse herself and cooperate.

But in court Ayala reassured the judge she would not interfere with the special prosecutor, Brad King, and wants to see justice done in the Loyd case.

The family of Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, have said they agree with Ayala.

“You have to understand that we want closure. And with closure doesn’t mean to be dragged in and out of court with appeals and everything else,” Stephanie Dixon, Sade’s mother, said at a news conference Friday. “He will never see the light of day again. … If he doesn’t die of natural causes, I’m quite sure he will be tortured for his hideous crimes.”

Even so, when reporters asked Scott whether he would consider removing Ayala from office entirely, he said his office will “continue to look at our options.”

“Right now, I’m focused on Markeith Loyd,” Scott said.

Rex Dimmig, 10th Judicial Circuit public defender, told WUFT that he fears Scott’s actions could stifle the independence of prosecutors throughout the state.

“Now we have an example of a prosecutor who is supposed to have broad discretion over who they charge, and if they don’t exercise discretion in the way that higher government officials approve of, they’re removed from their responsibility. And that puts political responsibility on each of the state attorneys,” Dimmig said. “Unquestionably that is a factor that will be in their mind.”

Late Monday, state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican, called on Scott to suspend Ayala from office and reassign all her death penalty cases, reported Florida Politics. In a news release, Cortes said that Ayala’s “disregard” for Loyd’s victims shows the “irreparable harm she could do to justice in the Ninth Circuit.”

Orlando Police Chief John Mina was among the law enforcement officials who lambasted Ayala’s decision last week. On Monday, he told the Orlando Sentinel it was “disappointing” that the state attorney might appeal Scott’s order.

“When someone commits this type of crime and this type of act, there needs to be the appropriate punishment,” he said, “and anything short of the death penalty, in my mind, is not the appropriate punishment.”

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