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Prosecutor sues Florida governor over death penalty cases

Aramis Ayala, state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

A Florida prosecutor sued Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday for stripping her office of nearly two dozen first-degree murder cases because she refused to consider the death penalty.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court, Aramis Ayala challenges Scott’s decision to reassign 23 homicide cases to another prosecutor. Ayala, state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, argues the move violated her constitutional rights, harmed her reputation and deprived those who elected her “of the benefit of their votes.”

“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 that reassigned the cases to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King, also named as a defendant in the suit.

Florida state attorney Aramis Ayala says her rights were violated when Gov. Rick Scott reassigned her first-degree murder cases. Gov. Scott is seen here speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016.

Dispute started with Markeith Loyd case

The showdown between Scott and Ayala started when Ayala announced her decision not to seek the death penalty in the high-profile case of Markeith Loyd, accused of killing a police officer, or future cases her office prosecutes.

Loyd was captured on January 17 after a nationwide manhunt. He was indicted about a month later in the December 13 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, 24, and in the January 9 death of Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton, 42, outside a Walmart.

“The moment I heard that she had decided not to prosecute Markeith Loyd to the full extent of the law, it bothered me personally,” the governor said Tuesday, CNN affiliate WFTV reported.

“(Loyd) is accused of murdering a pregnant girlfriend. He’s accused of shooting officer Debra Clayton, and when she’s down walking up to her and pummeling her with bullets so she died,” the governor said in remarks to reporters posted on the Orlando Sentinel website.

Scott said he asked Ayala to recuse herself from the Loyd case in March. When she wouldn’t, he said he reassigned it to King.

King could not be reached on Tuesday.

The governor cited the Dixon and Clayton families and that of Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis, who died in a crash during the manhunt for Loyd.

“These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Ayala 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.

Ayala seeks an injunction ordering Scott to reinstate her as prosecutor on the pending cases and barring him from replacing her with any other state official. She also seeks an injunction prohibiting King from assuming her duties.

“State Attorney Aramis Ayala has the right to use her discretion to determine how and to what extent she’s going to prosecute cases in her district. That is the right that the voters gave her,” said her attorney, Roy Austin of Washington, D.C.

Ayala says 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.

Governor, prosecutor say they prioritize victims

Scott and Ayala have cast their positions as a fight for justice, and said their stances consider the families of victims.

“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.

Scott said Tuesday he would continue to review cases “because I’m going to think about the victim and I’m going to think about the victim’s family.”

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, 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.

Ayala: Scott ‘mischaracterized’ her stance

Ayala’s suit said the governor asked her to recuse herself when she called him before her March announcement.

“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.

The governor issued his March 16 executive order soon after removing her from the Loyd case. The order “mischaracterized Ayala’s careful weighing of the circumstances,” the lawsuit says.

Civil rights groups applauded Ayala’s decision, but Orlando police Chief John Mina and victims’ families criticized it and urged her to recuse herself from Loyd case.

This month, King filed a notice that he intends to seek the death penalty against Loyd.

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.