Gov. Ron DeSantis has suspended another elected prosecutor. This time it’s Monique Worrell of Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, in Orange and Osceola counties, a Democrat who was elected in November 2020 and is the second African American to hold the position.
The Republican governor, who interrupted his presidential campaign to visit Tallahassee for the announcement, alleged that Worrell has been lax in charging decisions against violent offenders. She has been “clearly and fundamentally derelict so as to constitute neglect of duty and incompetence,” he said during a news conference.
“Prosecutors do have a certain amount of discretion about which cases to bring and which not. But what this state’s attorney has done is abuse that discretion and has effectively nullified certain laws in the state of Florida,” DeSantis added. “That breaches her duties that she owes to the people of Florida under our state Constitution and provides the basis for this suspension.”
Worrell, during a news conference outside her old office in downtown Orlando, asserted that DeSantis saw her suspension as a way to bolster his quest for the GOP presidential nomination, which has been flagging of late.
“This is a political hit job. It is nothing less than that. And it should be seen for exactly what it is,” Worrell said.
An investigator with her office called her this morning, “reading me a notification from the governor that I had been suspended and telling me not to return to the office,” Worrell said. Her lawyers are reviewing the governor’s suspension order and considering her options. Two of her top aides were fired, including one in charge of police corruption, she added.
Worrell plans to seek reelection next year, she said.
The development came just over a year after the Republican governor suspended the twice-elected Democratic prosecutor last Aug. 4 for alleged “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” arising from Andrew Warren’s signing of a pledge not to prosecute alleged crimes arising from provision of abortion or transgender care.
A federal judge in Tallahassee later ruled that Warren never imposed any blanket nonprosecution policies and that DeSantis acted for his own “political benefit” against a progressive prosecutor preparatory to the governor’s presidential bid. However, the judge ruled he was powerless to reinstate Warren. That said, the judge stated that “the record includes not a hint of misconduct by Mr. Warren.”
During a video conference call, Warren advised Worrell to “fight back.”
“This is a dark day for democracy in the Sunshine State,” Warren said, adding that it came one day after DeSantis shook up his presidential campaign again, firing its manager and installing James Uthmeier, his chief aide in the governor’s office..
“This is another unconstitutional attack on democracy by a small, scared man who is desperate to save his presidential campaign. He wants to be a bully but he’s actually a coward who’s repeatedly violated the rule of law and the will of the voters to cover up his own weakness,” Warren said.
DeSantis named Circuit Judge Andrew Bain to fill the vacancy. He’s a former prosecutor in the same judicial circuit. The Florida Senate must vote on Worrell’s future in the job.
He bought into the governor’s story. “Sadly, instead of protecting the righteous from the unjust, the state’s attorney’s office has allowed lawlessness to take root in our community,” Bain, also African American, said during the news conference.
“My goals as state’s attorney are to restore order, restore faith in the law, restore public trust, restore our relationships with our justice partners in law enforcement, and to create lasting relationships with local service agencies and nonprofits that are here to help serve our community,” he added.
In an executive order, DeSantis complained that Worrell’s office has been undercharging violent offenses and putting the community at risk.
“Worrell has authorized or allowed practices or policies that have systematically permitted violent offenders, drug traffickers, serious-juvenile offenders, and pedophiles to evade incarceration, when otherwise warranted under Florida law,” the order reads.
“These practices or policies include non-filing or dropping meritorious charges or declining to allege otherwise provable facts to avoid triggering applicable lengthy sentences, minimum mandatory sentences, or other sentencing enhancements, especially for offenders under the age of 25, except in the most extreme cases.”
The document cites low rates of mandatory sentences for gun crimes including robbery and carjacking plus drug trafficking from the Ninth Circuit and alleges Worrell has also gone easy on child pornography.
Attached to the order is a report from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice indicating that the Ninth Circuit led the state in dropped felony charges against juveniles at 42% and dropped gun charges at 29%.
Flanked Wednesday by Attorney General Ashley Moody and Central Florida sheriffs, DeSantis cited cases in which he said dangerous suspects were allowed to go free only to commit violent crimes.
They included Lorenzo Larry, who was 17 when he allegedly shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend in October 2022 while free following his arrest that May on weapons charges. “Worrell’s office didn’t act on any of these charges until after he killed his girlfriend and their unborn child,” the governor said.
He also raised Daton Viel, killed by a SWAT team after he allegedly shot two University of Central Florida police officers while on bond on charges he sexually assaulted a child. The Fraternal Order of Police argued on Facebook that Worrell should have done more to lock him up but she noted that the court released him, not her.
Worrell argued that case outcomes reflect efforts by the many participants in the criminal justice system, including law enforcement and the courts. Moreover, her constituents elected her to divert especially youthful offenders from jail when appropriate, she said.
She noted that she and her aides have lost their paychecks and health insurance now.
“My children have to deal with this the day before school starts. That is evil. It is evil. There is no justice in what’s being done. And even from the people who are celebrating the fact that I am removed, if there is any humanity in you at all you should know that this is bigger than just me. There is a family who is being harmed today because of political attacks. This is a political hit job. It is nothing less than that. And it should be seen for exactly what it is.”
She called her replacement a “great guy” and stressed, “I’m not going to take any hits against him. This is the work of the governor.”
Elected Democrats lamented the move.
“We saw this coming from a mile away – with his presidential campaign up in flames, wanna-be dictator Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking a page out of his tired playbook by unconstitutionally suspending a duly elected state attorney to breathe life back into his tired conservative persona,” U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost said in a written statement.
“State Attorney Worrell is a duly elected public servant who has done her job. The people of Orange County see this fraud suspension for what it is and continue to offer her our support as she fights this overreach of power. We will not stand for this blatant abuse of power and fascism in our state,” Frost added.
“This is absolutely disgusting — State Attorney Monique Worrell is a duly elected official and the only Black woman serving as State Attorney in Florida right now,” state House member Anna Eskamani of Orange County said.
“Her removal is a complete slap in the face to Orange and Osceola County residents and another example of Gov. DeSantis eroding our local control and democracy. This politically motivated action by the governor in a predominantly democratic part of the state should alarm everyone. DeSantis is extreme, unfit to serve, and must be held accountable.”
“By removing Monique Worrell without just cause, the governor has effectively silenced the voices of Circuit 9 residents who saw in her a champion of justice, equality, and fairness,” said state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, representing parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said. ““I urge the residents of Circuit 9 to express their discontent and demand accountability from their elected officials. It is crucial that we stand united against such abuses of power and defend the principles of democracy that make our state and our nation strong.”
“While the governor wants you to believe his actions are predicated on promoting public safety, the truth is that he removed SA Worrell as a desperate political stunt,” Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the progressive Fair and Just Prosecution, said in a written statement.
“The governor has now suspended two duly elected prosecutors from office, demonstrating a pattern of complete disregard for Floridians’ right to local control and an eagerness to throw anyone who doesn’t agree with him under the bus just to score political points. He cannot claim to be a champion for freedom while eviscerating the freedom of communities to choose their local leaders. These craven power grabs are an affront to democracy, and we are proud to stand with SA Worrell against this outrageous overreach,” she added.
–Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix