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In Unprecedented Move, Gov. Scott Shifts 21 Death Cases Away From State Attorney Ayala

| April 4, 2017

Gov. Rick Scott's decision to remove cases from an elected state attorney's docket is unprecedented in Florida. (© FlaglerLive)

Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to remove cases from an elected state attorney’s docket is unprecedented in Florida. (© FlaglerLive)

Heightening the controversy over a Central Florida state attorney who refuses to seek the death penalty for an accused cop-killer or other defendants accused of capital crimes, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday reassigned 21 first-degree murder cases to a special prosecutor who will handle the high-profile case of Markeith Loyd.


In a statement announcing the reassignment of the cases, Scott said he removed Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala “in the interest of justice” following her decision not to consider capital punishment in any case.

Ayala, who ousted her predecessor in a Democratic primary in August, announced last month she would not seek the death penalty for Loyd or other defendants during her time in office. Her decision refocused a spotlight on Florida’s already-embattled death penalty, on hold for more than a year as a result of state and federal court rulings.

“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,” Scott said.

Speaking to the Florida Legislative Black Caucus in Tallahassee, Ayala said Monday night she has “a duty and a responsibility to seek justice and do what’s right.”

“I need people to continue to get the word out there. This is a legally sound position that I’ve taken,” Ayala, who served as an assistant prosecutor and law professor, told the black caucus.

After Ayala, Florida’s first black elected state attorney, announced she would not seek death for Loyd — accused in the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton — Scott reassigned the case to outspoken death-penalty proponent Brad King, the Ocala-based state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

Ayala’s decision resulted in calls for her ouster by a number of Republican elected officials, who accused the prosecutor of failing to do her job, and sparked an outcry from a variety of state and national groups, including the NAACP, condemning Scott for his actions.

The dispute over the Loyd case — and Ayala’s refusal to seek the death penalty in other capital cases— has galvanized opposition to the death penalty in Florida. Ayala’s rationale for avoiding the death penalty was based in part on research showing its implementation is biased against minorities, and that the dragged-out process is traumatic to victims.

Ayala had asked a circuit judge to put the Loyd case on hold while she challenged Scott’s decision to remove her from the case, but Orange County Circuit Judge Frederick Lauten allowed the case to move forward and said the Florida Supreme Court should rule on the issue. Ayala has appealed.

On Monday, Scott signed an executive order reassigning 21 other cases from Ayala’s 9th Judicial Circuit to King. More than half of the cases involve Death Row inmates who have been — or could be — ordered new hearings stemming from a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s death penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. Last fall, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a revised state law aimed at addressing the federal Hurst decision because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations for death to be imposed.

Lawmakers addressed the issue last month, passing a law that required unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences. That move came just days before Ayala announced she would not seek death in any cases under her watch.

Ayala said last month when announcing her decision that, while she has the discretion to seek the death penalty in capital cases, “doing so is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice.”

Ayala cited numerous problems with the death penalty as the basis for her decision, which she said she reached after “extensive and painstaking thought and consideration.”

But, in Monday’s statement, Scott argued that he was reassigning the cases to King on behalf of the victims’ families, who “deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision.”

“I cannot imagine the pain their families endure each day, and we will do all we can to aggressively fight for justice,” the governor said.

Critics, including more than 100 law professors and former prosecutors and judges, accused Scott of overstepping his authority by removing Ayala from the Loyd case, and others.

“The governor’s actions might reasonably cause constitutionally elected officers to believe that they are at risk when making a decision that is within their purview but is politically unpopular,” said 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association death penalty steering committee.

“Although Ms. Ayala’s critics have denounced her actions as dereliction of duty, they cannot point to a single law or statute that she has violated. That’s because she hasn’t,”  write Randolph Bracy, chairman of the Florida Senate criminal justice committee, in today’s New York Times.  “There are no federal or state laws that say prosecutors must seek death sentences. And the United States Supreme Court has banned all state laws that make executions mandatory for murders.” He wrote that “it is unclear” whether Scott has the authority to remove cases from under an elected prosecutor who has not broken any laws. 

 More than two-thirds of the cases reassigned to King involve Death Row inmates whose sentences were recommended by juries in which at least one member did not recommend capital punishment.

The Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered new sentencing hearings for defendants who did not have unanimous jury recommendations. More than half of Florida’s nearly 400 Death Row inmates are expected to be eligible for new sentencing hearings as a result of the state court’s decision in cases related to Hurst.

“The current state attorney has been elected to make these judgments, and these judgments include a fresh look at the evidence, a determination in terms of what the issues have been and then, finally, the status of the law. And the law is different now than when these charges were made,” said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and former president of Florida State University who signed the letter objected to Scott’s ouster of Ayala. “The reason that prosecutors fought so hard to keep the number of jurors less than unanimous was that it was easier for them to get convictions that way.”

D’Alemberte said it is up to local officials to decide whether to pursue the death penalty, especially given evolving views on the issue.

“At some point, a state attorney has to take into consideration the changing attitudes,” he said.

–Dara Kam and Ryan Ray, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive

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16 Responses for “In Unprecedented Move, Gov. Scott Shifts 21 Death Cases Away From State Attorney Ayala”

  1. IKNOWEVERYTHING says:

    Of course! Rick Scott has no choice. This is a no brainer and there should be no surprise. If anything, I am surprised that idiot is still state attorney.

  2. woody says:

    This IS NOT a white thing or a black thing it is a doing the right thing!

  3. Sw says:

    Fire her

  4. Wishful thinking says:

    Remove her and revoke her law license

  5. David S. says:

    Ship her ass down to monroe county..

  6. Mark101 says:

    She needs to do her job or she needs to go work as a public defender. Firing her is justice for those victims families that saw their loved ones die at the hands of heartless criminals.

  7. beachcomberT says:

    The governor’s only role in Florida’s criminal justice system is to issue pardons and commutations. He is not a prosecutor nor a grand jury. He should let Orlando’s state attorney handle cases as she sees fit. If the voters in her district disagree with her stand on capital punishment, they can vote her out of office. Given the numerous errors that occur in Florida’s murder convictions, I’m glad the prosecutor has the political courage to rule out executions.

  8. W.Ryan says:

    In this “Praise God” state of Florida, why isn’t god the last word on condemning someone to death! The hypocrisy of these “Right to Life” Republicans who vote for an ungodly, lying azz cheating, sexually assaulting, treasonous little man who assumes the role of President on a stolen election that stole a Supreme Court Justice spot to corrupt America Greater that ever before. Get over this partisan crap and let this truly elected person do her job the way she feels god intends for her to do it. Scott is a big crook that got over on the system because he has money. Just like Trump!!!

  9. Justin DiGeorgio says:

    This lady should get removed from office altogether.

  10. Steve Robinson says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with Ryan and beachcomber. Hard to understand how governors like Scott and that other Rick, former head executioner in Texas, think they’re scoring macho points by boasting about their cold-blooded approach to pulling the lever or pushing the plunger. Even though this country has lost its mind in electing Trump, I still believe that the winds of change are blowing against capital punishment, and that the U.S. will eventually join the rest of the civilized world.

  11. Anita says:

    Has anyone considered the possibility that her decision to avoid the death penalty may be based on the Biblical injunction, “Thou shall not kill”? I sure don’t recall my fellow “Flaglerites” clamoring so loudly for marriage license clerk, Kim Davis’s firing when she cited religious reasons for denying licenses to gay couples or even giving a passing mention to Mitch McConnell for NOT “doing his job” by giving Judge Garland so much as a hearing in his bid for the Supreme Court. Just two examples of government employees NOT doing their jobs, unlike Ms. Ayala who is.

  12. Outsider says:

    She has proven herself unable to be impartial, and therefore unable to enforce the law. Sure, a prosecutor has discretion in pursuing the death penalty, but that is after examining all the evidence in each individual case. What is to stop her from deciding no one’s interests are served by sentencing people to prison and turning criminals loose on society? Fire her and let her give George Soros his money back that allowed this lefty loon buy the election.

  13. Geezer says:

    W.Ryan:

    In a desert mostly barren of critical thought, you are consistently an oasis of refreshing commentary.
    I tip my hat to you.

  14. Anita says:

    FYI: A recent news story tell of a mentally challenged Dade County inmate was chained, screaming in agony under a scalding shower for four hours before his corpse was removed by corrections officers. Today, the State Attorney, reading the autopsy which claimed he died of schizophrenia and a bum ticker, found no one guilty of this poor, unfortunate’s death. And she did it with a straight face.

    Where are the howls of outrage? No ONE dies of schizophrenia! A man with a bad heart doesn’t have his flesh peeling away f rom his bones because of his bad heart! It appears that people are pretty damned selective of HOW the law is applied in the State of Florida.

  15. Sherry says:

    This State Attorney is an “elected” official! In our now fascist “totalitarian” federal and state governments, the actual vote and will of ALL the people is being cast aside.

    Attorney Ayala IS DOING THE JOB SHE WAS ELECTED TO DO! Just because she is not doing it precisely in the way our horrific governor wants her to, he is now massively undercutting her authority. She is fighting scott’s actions in court. . . most “educated” people believe she will prevail. . . as she certainly should.

  16. Anonymous says:

    woody-If this is not a white thing or a black thing then Scott should take action against Larizza when he doesn’t prosecute all cases that he should that are brought before him. He is selective and this is no different. If the black woman is held accountable then the white man should be held accountable too!

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