Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he was removing a state attorney from about two dozen murder cases, escalating a dispute between the two officials over the death penalty in one of the country’s most active capital-punishment states.
The announcement from Scott, a Republican, came a little more than two weeks after Aramis D. Ayala, a Democratic state attorney elected last year, announced that she would no longer seek the death penalty in cases. In response, Scott swiftly said he was removing Ayala from the prosecution of a man charged with killing an Orlando police officer, the most high-profile case under her jurisdiction.
The dispute has reverberated far beyond the central Florida region where Ayala is the state attorney, drawing praise from advocates for criminal justice changes and prompting outrage from elected officials and a state police union. The feud has hinged on the killing of the police officer and on broader questions about the death penalty, which has been in limbo for more than a year in Florida after being twice struck down by courts as unconstitutional.
On Monday, Scott expanded on his earlier decision to remove Ayala from the prosecution of Markeith D. Loyd, who is accused of fatally shooting Debra Clayton, an Orlando police officer, after killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon. Scott declared that he was issuing executive orders reassigning 21 first-degree murder cases in Ayala’s region to Brad King, the longtime state attorney for a neighboring judicial circuit.
“Each of these cases I am reassigning represents a horrific loss of life,” Scott said in a statement announcing his executive orders. “The families who tragically lost someone deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision.”
Scott said that his office would “do all we can to aggressively fight for justice” and that Ayala was not doing the same.
“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,” he said.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Ayala assailed the decision, noting that she found out about the cases being reassigned only through media reports. The prosecutor “remains steadfast in her position the governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” the spokeswoman, Eryka Washington, said in the statement.
Ayala is responsible for a stretch of central Florida encompassing Orange and Osceola counties, a region that includes Orlando and is among the state’s most populous areas. She had said she came to her decision regarding the death penalty after researching the issue and concluding that it does not make police officers safer and noting that sentences are often followed by an extended appeals process, offering families only a “false promise” of closure.
While Ayala had previously challenged Scott’s decision to remove her from the Loyd prosecution, a judge last week backed Scott and denied a request to stay the case’s proceedings. Washington did not respond to a request for comment about whether Ayala would challenge the executive orders issued Monday.
Groups opposed to the death penalty and criminal justice restructuring advocates had praised Ayala’s decision not to seek death sentences, a remarkable declaration in a state that has one of the country’s biggest death rows and most active death chambers.
But local law enforcement leaders, including Orlando Police Chief John Mina, had denounced Ayala’s decision not to seek a death sentence against Loyd, and she was criticized by her fellow Florida prosecutors. State lawmakers have also said that they will try to strip more than $1.4 million and 21 positions from her office, which Ayala’s spokeswoman called “political posturing.”
Scott’s decision on Monday to pull Ayala from additional cases was praised by Pam Bondi, the state’s attorney general and a supporter of capital punishment.
“I would like to commend Governor Rick Scott for his swift action for not only protecting citizens of Orlando but standing up for all crime victims and their families,” Bondi said in a statement.
Scott’s orders encompassed cases in which prosecutors have previously said they would seek the death penalty as well as several cases in which people have been sentenced to death, only for those sentences to be thrown into question by the recent chaos suffusing Florida’s laws.
Florida has been among the country’s leaders in the death penalty. The state has the country’s second-largest death row, trailing only Texas, and has carried out more executions in the modern era than all but three states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.
However, the Florida death penalty has been effectively suspended for more than a year. The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 struck down the state’s death-sentencing scheme, saying it gave judges, rather than juries, too much power. Scott promptly signed a new death-penalty statute, only for the Florida Supreme Court to strike that one down as unconstitutional. Last month, Scott signed another death penalty statute — the state’s third in about 15 months — in an attempt to restart executions in the state.
But the rulings striking down the earlier statutes did more than just freeze upcoming executions. They also threw into uncertainty what would happen to nearly 400 inmates on Florida’s death row and whether some or all would be eligible for new sentences. In December, the Florida Supreme Court provided some clarity, ruling that potentially hundreds of death row inmates could seek new sentences because the earlier ones had been thrown out. Scott’s orders on Monday included several cases that he said needed new sentences because of those earlier rulings.