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Gov. Scott takes cop-slaying case from Orlando prosecutor over her refusal to seek death penalty

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday removed the newly elected prosecutor in Orlando from the high-profile prosecution of a man accused of killing a cop after she announced she would not seek the death penalty in that case or any first-degree murder case.

Aramis Ayala, state attorney in Orlando and Osceola counties, told reporters that she determined the death penalty wasn't in the best interest of justice. Her assessment included the case of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton on Jan. 9 as she tried to capture him more than a week after he allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon.

Her announcement created shock waves in criminal justice circles and in the state Capitol, where lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to revise the state's death penalty last week.

That law (SB 280) requires that Florida juries vote unanimously to sentence someone to death and gave prosecutors the green light to again pursue capital punishment after court decisions that found the state's existing sentencing rules unconstitutional. Scott signed the change into law late Monday.

Republican leaders swiftly criticized Ayala, including Scott, who publicly demanded she recuse herself and later reassigned the case to Brad King, state attorney for Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

"(Ayala) has made it clear that she will not fight for justice, and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case to State Attorney Brad King," Scott said in a statement Thursday afternoon. "These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served."

Ayala said she would follow "any lawful order" from the governor.

"I offered to have a full conversation with him regarding my decision about (the) death penalty," she said in a statement. "He declined to explore my reasoning."

"I have given this issue extensive, painstaking thought and consideration," Ayala had told reporters earlier Thursday. "What has become abundantly clear through this process is that while I do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice."

Scott has broad authority under state law to reassign cases if "for any other good and sufficient reason" he feels "the ends of justice would best be served" by doing so.

King, a Republican and former Marion County sheriff's deputy, was first elected state attorney in 1988. Under his leadership in 2016, the state attorneys opposed a push to require that juries vote unanimously on death sentences.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said that Ayala's decision "sends a dangerous message" and constitutes a "blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is considering a run for governor in 2018, said he would consider suspending her if he were in Scott's position.

"State attorneys take an oath to uphold the laws of the state. If they don't uphold the laws of our state, they shouldn't be state attorneys," Latvala said, adding, "I think she ought to be thrown out of office."

Scott cannot unilaterally kick a constitutional officer like Ayala out of office. However, the Constitution gives him the authority to suspend Ayala and the Florida Senate the power to remove her from office.

Ayala, a Democrat, was elected to her first term in November. She is the first African-American state attorney elected in Florida history.

Ayala did not run on an anti-death penalty platform.

Liberal activist and billionaire George Soros, who opposes the death penalty, gave Ayala's campaign $1.4 million, securing her victory during a primary that was closed to registered Republicans, third-party voters and those not affiliated with a party, thanks to a loophole in the state election law.

However, state attorneys have discretion under the law to determine how to pursue cases, including whether or not to seek the death penalty.

That's what Ayala is doing by promising not to pursue death sentences, said Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy, who represents the northwest corner of Orange County and chairs the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee.

"She was elected to make these types of decisions," he said. "We make the laws as it relates to sentencing, but the state attorneys have a role. We can't dictate to them what charges are appropriate for certain crimes."

Andrew Warren, the first-term Democrat elected state attorney in Hillsborough County, was more measured than Bracy but still defended Ayala's ability to choose when to seek the death penalty.

"Each state attorney, including Ms. Ayala, after careful and meticulous evaluation, has the full, legal discretion to determine for his or her jurisdiction, whether to employ this ultimate sanction," Warren said in a statement.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he has known judges who opposed the death penalty but still applied the law in cases that merited it. The murder of a police officer, he added, is an "automatic aggravator" that warrants the death penalty.

"It borders on dereliction of duty," he said of Ayala's decision. "The term is irresponsible, to just say, I'm not going to follow the law."

House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor, said Ayala was not using normal prosecutorial discretion.

"She went a lot further than that," Sprowls said. "She didn't say, 'I'm exercising my discretion given the particular facts of this case.' She said, 'Under no circumstances do I feel it's appropriate to seek the death penalty.' That is not her role to play."

Times staff writers Dan Sullivan and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Gov. Scott takes cop-slaying case from Orlando prosecutor over her refusal to seek death penalty 03/16/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 17, 2017 12:59am]
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