Gov. Rick Scott has decided to step up his assault on Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties who had the audacity to refuse to seek the death penalty for an accused cop killer — or other defendants accused of capital crimes.
After removing her last month from the prosecution of the accused, Markeith Loyd, Scott on Monday — acting “in the interest of justice” — reassigned 21 additional first-degree murder cases to an outspoken death-penalty proponent, Brad King, the Ocala-based state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.
These executive orders disrespect the sanctity of both the electoral and judicial processes. And Scott should reverse them immediately.
It’s hard to see this as anything but a politically motivated power grab by a governor whose disdain for the traditional checks and balances of government can be palpable — especially when it comes to the judiciary.
Ayala, Florida’s first black elected state attorney, announced last month that 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’s decision to remove her from the case was swift, coming within hours of her announcement. Nearly as swift was reaction from Republican lawmakers, calling for the governor to remove Ayala from office and reducing her office’s funding. Just Tuesday morning, a group of Central Florida Republicans held a news conference again calling for her removal.
To be sure, Florida lawmakers are still a bit sore about being forced — twice — to pass a bill requiring a unanimous jury vote for the death penalty. Both the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts had struck down the state’s capital punishment system as unconstitutional, making more than half the state’s 400 death row inmates eligible for new sentencing. Likely, many GOP lawmakers saw Ayala’s decision as another slap in the face.
But that’s their problem. They should understand that prosecutors have broad discretionary power. That’s why every first-degree murder case is not a death penalty case. Aggravating circumstance also must be present.
We don’t necessarily agree with Ayala’s position rejecting the death penalty in all cases. But we respect her authority, vested by the voters of the 9th Circuit, to do so. Those same voters — who elected her by a double-digit margin — can remove her from office if she does not represent their views about criminal justice.
That’s the point. The governor would have us believe this is about the death penalty. It’s not. This is about a chief executive’s unprecedented overreach based on a political philosophy.
The law Scott cites, which allows a governor to remove prosecutors from cases if the prosecutors are unfit or if there is a conflict of interest, is also a stretch.
In a statement Monday, Scott said the victims’ families “deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision.”
They also deserve a state attorney of their own choosing. They deserve a state attorney who’s not fearful of doing what’s best for their constituents by making a politically unpopular decision. And one not subject to knee-jerk reactions.
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.”
Nearly 150 law professors, former prosecutors and judges wrote a letter of protest to Scott. They kept it simple. “Florida’s entire criminal justice system is premised on the independence of prosecutors,” they wrote. Ayala “is solely empowered to make prosecutorial decisions for her circuit.”
If the governor is truly genuine about his passion for “justice,” he needs to step back from this dangerously slippery slope.
The governor would have us believe this is about the death penalty. It’s not.