Florida's governor prevails over prosecutor who opposes death penalty

August 31, 2017, 10:00am

The Florida Supreme Court sided with Gov. Rick Scott Thursday in his standoff with State Attorney Aramis Ayala over her decision not to seek the death penalty in any of her capital cases.

In a 5-2 decision, the court ruled that Gov. Scott acted within his legal power when he removed Ayala from death penalty–eligible cases. “Far from being unreasoned or arbitrary…the reassignments are predicated upon ‘good and sufficient reason,’ namely Ayala’s blanket refusal to pursue the death penalty in any case despite Florida law,” the decision said.

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Ayala announced in a March 16 press conference that she would not pursue the death penalty for Markeith Loyd, an Orlando man accused of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and a police officer. She then went on to say she would not be pursuing the death penalty in any case during her term. Gov. Scott used an executive order to remove Ayala from the Loyd case and assign it to a different state attorney. This year, Scott has removed her from 29 cases where capital punishment was a sentencing option.

Read more: Meet the Florida prosecutor fighting the death penalty

“When it came to the governor’s response, I was absolutely stunned, because I’m constitutionally authorized to make the decision that I made,” Ayala told VICE News during an interview at her home in May. The only two female justices on Florida’s high court, Justice Barbara Pariente and Justice Peggy Quince, dissented, agreeing with Ayala’s assertion.

“Because State Attorney Ayala’s decision was within the bounds of the law and her discretion, Governor Scott did not have ‘good and sufficient reason’ to remove her from these cases,” Justice Pariente wrote in the dissent, adding, “The Governor’s decision in this case fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of the duly elected State Attorneys.”

Ayala, the first black prosecutor to be elected in Florida’s history, took office in January. Although the death penalty never came up during her campaign, she ran on reforming the criminal justice system in Orlando.

Gov. Scott celebrated the court’s decision Thursday, calling Ayala’s death penalty stance “sickening” in a statement. “Today’s ruling is a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime,” he said today in a statement.

More people have been executed under Gov. Scott than under any other governor in Florida’s history. The state conducted its first execution last week after a 19-month long hiatus. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty law in January 2016, no longer allowing judges to override nonunanimous juries in death penalty trials. Those overrides were deemed unconstitutional by the high court, so the state scrambled for more than a year to pass a new, constitutional law.

Gov. Scott will continue to reassign Ayala’s cases to Brad King, the state attorney in Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit, as Ayala takes her case against Scott to federal court.