The controversy surrounding Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala and her decision not to seek the death penalty in the case of a man accused of killing a police officer — or any case in her jurisdiction — is escalating by the day. But cool heads are needed, not blanket statements or reactionary calls for removing an elected prosecutor. Superseding any single case and even the larger debate about the death penalty is the imperative to preserve the independence and discretion of Florida's constitutionally elected officials.
Ayala, a Democrat who took office in January, announced last week she would not seek the death penalty for Markeith Loyd, who is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton. Prosecutors in Florida have broad discretion over when to seek capital punishment, with the law directing that they weigh the facts and circumstances of each case individually. But Ayala, in announcing her decision, didn't cite any specifics about Loyd's case. She offered only general criticisms of the death penalty — that it's not an effective crime deterrent and brings further pain to victims' families — and made the extraordinary declaration that she wouldn't seek the death penalty in any case. Florida's death penalty has outlasted its usefulness and should be repealed, but capital punishment is the law in Florida and prosecutors are obligated to consider it in every first-degree murder case. Ayala, by issuing a sweeping refusal to consider the death penalty in any case, flouts her authority and has let her personal views outweigh her professional obligations.
Gov. Rick Scott removed her from the Loyd case and reassigned it to the state attorney in a neighboring circuit. Scott first asked Ayala to withdraw from the case, and when she refused, he seized on a state law that allows the governor to appoint a new prosecutor to a case if he finds a "good and sufficient reason" to take it away from the original prosecutor. This is a precarious path. Governors should not intercede in charging decisions about individual cases, and it's a close call whether Scott overstepped his authority.
More than 100 attorneys, law professors and judges, including former state Supreme Court chief justices Harry Lee Anstead and Gerald Kogan and former Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte, say he did. In a letter sent to Scott on Monday, the lawyers wrote: "The governor picking and choosing how criminal cases are prosecuted, charged or handled in local matters is troubling as a matter of policy and practice." With that troubling precedent, there's all the more reason for caution and measured steps. But Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is among those calling for Ayala's removal. Such rhetoric is inflammatory and unjustified.
In a better Florida, there would be no death penalty, which over its history has been unevenly applied, saddled taxpayers with enormous expense and resulted in the death of innocent people. But as long as it is in force, state attorneys are legally bound to consider it in first-degree murder cases and make independent decisions. To do that justly, they must be able to exercise their discretion free from political interference. Ayala should reconsider her position and pledge to consider each death penalty case individually — and the governor and state legislators should not intervene when they disagree.