Orlando, FL – State Attorney Aramis Ayala has filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott, who re-assigned 23 death penalty cases to another prosecutor after she announced she will not seek capital punishment as a sentence while in office.
“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, wrote in the complaint.
The federal lawsuit names as defendants Scott and the prosecutor he chose to replace Ayala in the death penalty cases — State Attorney Brad King, whose district includes Marion and Lake counties.
“All State Attorney Ayala wants is the ability to seek justice for her community in the best way that she knows based on facts and data,” Austin said on Tuesday. “We are asking the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court in Orlando to ensure the integrity and independence of the justice system as both federal and state law require.”
Ayala took office in January after beating incumbent State Attorney Jeff Ashton. She did not talk about her stance on capital punishment on the campaign trail. On March 16, she stood in front of the Orange County Courthouse and announced that she will not seek death for the high-profile case of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, or against anyone else.
Later that day, Scott signed an executive order, taking the Loyd murder cases away from her and assigning them to King.
Scott said he was outraged that Ayala would not seek the death penalty against the accused cop killer.
She challenged that decision and hired Austin, a Washington, D.C. attorney who appeared in court March 28. But Chief Judge Frederick Lauten ruled that the Governor’s executive order would stand and the Loyd case will continue with King representing the state.
King has since announced that he intends to seek the death penalty against Loyd.
Last week the Governor took 22 more first-degree murder cases away from Ayala, most of them defendants who had already been given the death penalty. Some have had their non-unanimous death sentences vacated since court rulings changed the way Florida imposes its death penalty.
Ayala’s announcement that she will not seek the death penalty prompted widespread anger in the law enforcement community. Orlando Police Chief John Mina said he was “furious,” especially after seeing Loyd shooting one of his officers on video.
“If there was any a case for the death penalty, this is the case,” Mina said in March. “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 a recent poll commissioned by the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University shows 62 percent of Orange and Osceola county respondents would prefer it if people convicted of first-degree murder were sentenced to life in prison, with only 31 percent of respondents saying they would prefer the death penalty.
The poll did not ask about Loyd’s case or any other specific defendants.
O.H. Eaton Jr., a retired state circuit judge in Sanford and death penalty specialist, predicted that Ayala would win the court battle with Scott.
“There’s legions of case law out there that says state attorneys have the authority to do whatever they want to do, prosecute, don’t prosecute … seek the death penalty, don’t seek the death penalty,” he said.
He or she “doesn’t have to listen to victims. Doesn’t have to listen to anybody. I think that she’s got a good shot. It ought to be fairly simple. It’s just a question of law,” he said.
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