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Prosecutor Sues Florida Governor For Pulling Her From 23 Murder Cases

The state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties has sued Gov. Rick Scott, alleging that he acted unconstitutionally when he removed her from 23 homicide cases. Scott had reassigned Aramis Ayala's cases to another state attorney by executive order because Ayala had declared her refusal to pursue the death penalty.

"The Governor did not take this drastic step because of any misconduct on Ayala's part, but simply because he disagreed with her reasoned prosecutorial determination not to seek the death penalty under current circumstances," Ayala's attorney, Roy Austin, writes in her filing.

The complaint also lists the prosecutor chosen to replace her, State Attorney Brad King, as a defendant.

"The people of Orange and Osceola Counties overwhelmingly elected State Attorney Aramis Ayala to serve as their prosecutor — not Governor Scott or State Attorney King," Austin explained in a statement.

The Republican Scott, for his part, has said he went around Ayala, a Democrat, in the "interest of justice."

"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 earlier this month, as NPR's Debbie Elliott has reported.

The simmering disagreement between Ayala and Scott was brought to a boil in March, when the Legislature passed — and Scott signed — a bill that amended the state's procedures in determining the death penalty.

Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE explains what changed:

"For much of last year, executions in Florida were on hold. That's because Florida's Supreme Court said the way judges and juries decided on the death penalty was unconstitutional. At the time, the law said only seven of 12 jurors needed to recommend a death sentence.

"The legislature passed a law to change that, requiring a unanimous jury decision for death."

Ayala, whose jurisdiction includes Orlando, confronted this newly restored death penalty by refusing to pursue it, citing what she saw as a lack of compelling evidence for its effectiveness — and beginning her pushback with the case of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend and a police officer.

"If there was any a case for the death penalty, this is the case," Orlando Police Chief John Mina said in March, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "I've seen the video, so I know the state attorney has seen the video of [Loyd] standing over defenseless and helpless Lt. Debra Clayton and executing her."

But Ayala's complaint argues that by removing her from that case and nearly two dozen others, Scott and King "deprived the voters of Ayala's jurisdiction of the benefit of their votes — and violated Ayala's constitutional rights — when they assumed the authority to veto the prosecutorial discretion of an independent elected official."

The Orlando paper notes a recent poll that shows 62 percent of Ayala's constituents, who voted her into office over a Democratic rival in January, "would prefer it if people convicted of first-degree murder were sentenced to life in prison," outpacing the 31 percent who would prefer the death penalty.

Ayala says she called Scott before announcing her lawsuit, according to WMFE, "he ended the call in less than 30 seconds, before she could explain her position."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.