FLORIDA — A Florida state attorney has sued Gov. Rick Scott for stripping her office of nearly two dozen first-degree murder cases because she refused to consider the death penalty.
In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, Aramis Ayala challenges Scott’s decision to reassign 23 homicide cases from her office to another prosecutor. Ayala, state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, argues that the move violated her constitutional rights and harmed her reputation.
“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,” the lawsuit says.
Scott signed executive orders on March, 16, April 3 and April 6 reassigning the cases to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King, also named as a defendant in the suit.
Ayala also argues that state law gives her “absolute” discretion in deciding whether and how to prosecute cases. The defendants violated her rights “when they assumed the authority to veto the prosecutorial discretion of an independent elected official,” the suit says.
The lawsuit claims Scott chose King as Ayala’s replacement because of his “well-known” public support for the death penalty. Scott’s decision was “motivated by a specific desire to influence the course of capital prosecutions in Ayala’s circuit,” the suit says.
Representatives for Scott and King could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.
Ayala seeks an injunction ordering Scott to reinstate her as prosecutor on the 23 pending cases.
First executive order
In March, the governor first removed Ayala from the high-profile case of accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd and reassigned it to King after Ayala announced her decision not to seek the death penalty in cases her office prosecutes.
“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,” Scott said in a statement earlier this month.
Ayala points out in her suit that she, not King, was elected by voters in her circuit.
She became Florida’s first African-American state attorney when she was elected in November 2016. Her term began in January.
Ayala had briefly served as a former assistant state attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit before working as assistant public defender for the 9th Judicial Circuit, according to her LinkedIn page.
Ayala, whose office covers Orange and Osceola counties in central Florida, said in the lawsuit she had planned to seek life without parole in Loyd’s murder case.
Loyd was captured on January 17 after a nationwide manhunt. He was indicted about a month later in the shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, 24, and in the January 9 death of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton, 42, outside a Walmart.
Loyd and Dixon had been involved in a relationship and had a son on the way. He had been on the run since that shooting at an Orlando residence.
On January 9, Clayton received word that Loyd was near the Walmart and confronted him. Orlando Police Chief John Mina said then that Loyd “basically opened fire on her” as soon as Clayton told him to stop. Loyd continued to shoot Clayton even after she was down, according to Mina.
‘Chaos, uncertainty and turmoil’
In her lawsuit Ayala says she was willing to seek a death sentence in “appropriate” cases earlier in her career and held that belief throughout her campaign for state attorney.
Ayala says she came her decision to seek life without parole in Loyd’s case after researching the law and the facts the case. She says she also met with victims’ families, reviewed files from other cases and spoke with other individuals involved in the criminal justice system, the lawsuit said.
In her March 16 public announcement not to seek the death penalty in Loyd’s case and future cases, Ayala said capital punishment in Florida had led to “chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil.”
Ayala argued then that evidence has shown the death penalty is overly expensive, slow, inhumane and does not increase public safety. She said after “extensive and painstaking thought and consideration,” she determined that pursing the death penalty “is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice.”
“Some victims will support and some will surely oppose my decision,” Ayala said then. “But I have learned that the death penalty traps many victims, families in a decades-long cycle of uncertainty, court hearings, appeals and waiting.”
Her lawsuit claims she “was not categorically refusing to ever seek a death sentence” during the Lloyd press conference. There may be cases in which “I think the death penalty may be appropriate because of the egregiousness of the offense,” she said then, according to the suit.
Civil rights groups applauded Ayala’s decision, but Mina and victims’ families criticized it and urged her to recuse herself from the case.
Ayala: Governor ‘mischaracterized’ my position
Ayala’s suit claims she called Scott after the March announcement and the governor also asked her to recuse herself.
“She refused and asked him for the opportunity to explain her position. He declined and ended the call after less than 30 seconds,” the lawsuit says.
That day Scott signed the executive order removing Ayala from the Loyd case and replacing her with King.
Scott’s executive order “mischaracterized Ayala’s careful weighing of the circumstances,” the lawsuit says.
Capital punishment was recently in limbo in Florida for a brief period.
The US Supreme Court ruled in January 2016 that Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional because it let judges have the final say, even when a jury’s decision was not unanimous.
The governor signed a bill into law in March abolishing non-unanimous jury recommendations for death and requiring unanimous jury recommendations before a trial judge may impose a death sentence.