Florida death-penalty showdown between prosecutor, governor

State prosecutor Aramis Ayala of Florida. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

By Katie Mettler / The Washington Post

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 hard-line stance in a state so fond of capital punishment was only underscored by the first defendant her pledge would affect: accused cop killer Markeith Loyd, charged in the slayings of his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer shot execution style.

Within hours of her announcement 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 pro-death penalty 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 he “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 Comptroller’s office, who wrote that Ayala “should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree” for her stance.

And 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.”

This tension over the death penalty – and whose authority it is to pursue them – is not unfamiliar territory for Floridians. Executions statewide have been on hold since 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 appease 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.

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

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

They are financially draining with years of appeals, she said, prolonging closure for the families of victims. Instead, she vowed to seek life sentences for crimes heinous enough to warrant an eternity behind bars.

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 ten 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 dumped 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 buoy marginalized groups in Orlando, particularly the black community.

Organizations who have long opposed the death penalty touted Ayala’s stance since her announcement, referencing data that shows that African Americans are disproportionately sentenced to death. Others, reported WUFT, criticized Scott for deploying his executive powers inconsistently and cited the case of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer accused of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, who is black, in 2012. In that case, the governor waited months to appoint a special prosecutor, WUFT reported.

That overreach was at the core of the rebuke from the more than 100 judges, prosecutors and law professors nationwide who wrote the letter to Scott’s urging him to reverse his order on Ayala.

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 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 special prosecutor Brad King and wants to see justice done in the Loyd case.

The family of Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, agrees 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, Republican state representative Bob Cortes 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 chorus of 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 appeals Scott’s order.

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

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