Central Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala is pushing forward with a challenge to Gov. Rick Scott’s removal of her from 22 death penalty cases, including a high-profile case involving accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd.
Scott stripped Ayala, the newly elected prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties, from the Loyd case after she announced last month she did not intend to seek the death penalty for Loyd or any other defendants in capital cases during her time in office.
Scott reassigned the Loyd case to outspoken death penalty proponent Brad King, the Ocala-area state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, and last week put King in charge of 21 other death penalty cases currently being handled by Ayala’s office.
After Ayala challenged Scott’s authority to remove her from the Loyd case, a circuit judge refused to put the case on hold while Ayala moved forward with her legal challenge.
More than 100 legal experts, most of them death penalty opponents, and Ayala contend that Scott acted outside his executive role by reassigning the case, arguing that prosecutors like Ayala enjoy broad discretion in deciding whether to seek the death penalty in capital cases.
On Thursday, Ayala’s attorney, Roy Austin, requested that Attorney General Pam Bondi begin the process of asking a higher court to decide whether Scott has the authority to take the cases out of Ayala’s hands. The request came despite Bondi’s public condemnation of Ayala’s decision not to seek death in capital cases.
“By unconstitutional and unlawful executive orders issued by Gov. Rick Scott, State Attorney Brad King is wrongfully purporting to exercise the right of State Attorney Ayala to prosecute a number of cases in the Ninth Judicial Circuit,” wrote Austin, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis law firm, in a letter asking Bondi to initiate what is called a petition for “quo warranto” writ.
Austin gave Bondi until 5 p.m. Monday to notify him about Bondi’s intentions and indicated Ayala would pursue the legal matter on her own if the attorney general refused.
Late Friday, Associate Deputy Attorney General Chesterfield Smith Jr. told Austin that Bondi’s office “declines to commence such a proceeding” and “may seek to appear in any such proceeding to ensure that the laws of this state are properly interpreted and faithfully enforced.”
Austin acknowledged in a statement that the request of Bondi was largely procedural, and her response was no surprise.
“While we are realists about Attorney General Bondi’s position in this matter, we filed this request as part of the proper procedure in contesting Gov. Scott’s unlawful abuse of authority. As noted in our letter, if Attorney General Bondi fails to respond or refuses to initiate this action by the deadline, State Attorney Ayala will file an action to show that Gov. Scott’s dangerous overreach threatens the independence and integrity of Florida’s judicial system,” Austin said.
Ayala has until Tuesday to file a motion asking a higher court to rule on the issue.
Ayala’s refusal to pursue the death penalty for Loyd — accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style murder of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton — elicited the wrath of Republican House members, who are pushing Scott to oust the prosecutor for failing to do her job.
But her position about Florida’s embattled death penalty, on hold for more than a year as a result of state and federal court decisions, has heartened opponents of capital punishment and created an even deeper divide between the two sides on the issue.