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Florida Supreme Court backs Gov. Scott in Orlando death-penalty dispute

Justices ruled prosecutor Aramis Ayala did not actually exercise prosecutorial discretion in imposing a “blanket” ban on pursuing the death penalty in her Orlando district.
Orange/Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, asked for Markeith Loyd's case to pause Monday, March 20, 2017 while she researches if Gov. Rick Scott had the authority to pull her off after she announced she wouldn't be seeking the death penalty. Loyd was in court Monday morning for the first time since Ayala, the elected state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, said she would not seek the death penalty for Loyd. [Red Huber | Orlando Sentinel via TNS]

Gov. Rick Scott was within his executive authority in reassigning more than two dozen potential death penalty cases away from an Orlando state attorney who declared she wouldn’t pursue the punishment for any case prosecuted in her district, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 5-2 ruling, justices said Aramis Ayala’s “blanket” opposition to seeking the death penalty negates her argument of having exercised prosecutorial discretion.

Writing for the majority, Justice C. Alan Lawson — a conservative judge whom Scott appointed to the Supreme Court in December — said Scott, as governor, has leeway in his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed,” and “the governor has not abused his broad discretion in reassigning the cases at issue” to Brad King, a state attorney in Ocala.

The court’s decision prompted Ayala to back off her sweeping objection against seeking the death penalty.

In a statement, Ayala said she respects the ruling and thanked the court for “providing clarification.” She said she has “organized a Death Penalty Review Panel comprised of seven well-versed and experienced assistant state attorneys,” who will now evaluate first-degree murder cases in her judicial circuit.

“With implementation of this panel, it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly,” Ayala said.

Her attorney, Roy Austin, said in a separate statement: “All cases should be returned to her and no further cases should be removed from her.”

But Scott’s spokesman John Tupps said in a statement late Thursday that the governor won’t return any of the cases back to Ayala until she “fully recants her statement that she will not seek the death penalty in any case, and the governor is convinced that crime victims will be protected and justice will be served.

“State Attorney Ayala needs to make it clear that her office will seek the death penalty as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate,” Tupps said. ”[Her] statement today leaves too much room for interpretation.”

In a statement, Scott was quick to praise the ruling as “a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime.”

“I absolutely disagreed with State Attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice,” Scott said. “She unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening.”

Gov. Rick Scott, center, appointed C. Alan Lawson, right, to be Florida’s next justice of the Supreme Court in December 2016. Lawson wrote the court’s majority opinion, released Thursday, in favor of Scott in a case where the governor's authority had been challenged after he reassigned death penalty cases away from an independently elected state attorney. Mary Ellen Klas / Herald/Times

Ayala, a Democrat, was elected last November as state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. She’s the first African-American state attorney in Florida’s 172 years of statehood and did not run on an anti-death penalty platform.

In March, Ayala announced at a press conference she wouldn’t seek the death penalty in the case of accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd, who is charged with killing Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton on Jan. 9 as she tried to capture him more than a week after he allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon.

But her decision applied not just to Loyd’s case. Ayala had said that after “ extensive, painstaking thought and consideration,” she had determined seeking the death penalty in first-degree murder cases “is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice.”

Scott reassigned Loyd’s case — and many others since — for King to prosecute. Ayala took Scott to court, alleging he was out of bounds and defending her “absolute discretion” to not seek the death penalty in murder cases.

But “Ayala has exercised no discretion at all,” the justices ruled.

“Under Florida law, Ayala’s blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case, including a case that ‘absolutely deserve[s] [the] death penalty’ does not reflect an exercise of prosecutorial discretion; it embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law,” Lawson wrote.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Fred Lewis agreed with the ruling.

Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince dissented, arguing Ayala “acted well within the bounds of Florida law.”

Pariente wrote in the dissent that Ayala’s decision “does not provide a basis for the governor to remove” her and that her choice to not seek the death penalty “did not announce a refusal to prosecute the guilt of defendants charged with first-degree murder.”

“The governor’s decision in this case fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of duly elected state attorneys,” Pariente wrote. “The fact that the governor is charged to faithfully execute the laws does not supplant the constitutional authority of the independently elected state attorney to prosecute crimes and to exercise his or her discretion in deciding what punishment to seek within the confines of the applicable laws.”

Like Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi — whose office defended the governor in court — similarly welcomed the court’s decision and criticized Ayala.

“This year, we have seen the brutal murders of law enforcement officers in State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s circuit, and her unconscionable decision to never seek the death penalty will not be tolerated,” Bondi said in a statement. “The governor and I will continue to do all we can to protect our citizens.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, also had harsh words but directed them more broadly.

“I hope this message resonates loud and clear with all government officials who think they have the power to ignore or override the will of the people,” Corcoran said in a statement. “When it comes to the most evil among us, the people demand justice and today they got it. ”

Sprowls added: “The decision by the Florida Supreme Court reaffirmed what the governor and many members of the Legislature already knew — no state attorney is above the law.”

The ACLU of Florida — which supported Ayala — said it was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.

“Governor Scott’s intervention in State Attorney Ayala’s cases dangerously undermines the independence of our state’s prosecutors, and the Supreme Court’s regrettable decision today opens the door to further politicizing of our justice system,” deputy director Melba Pearson said in a statement.

Associations representing Florida’s sheriffs and police chiefs, however, applauded the ruling.

“The Florida Police Chiefs Association feels very strongly that when an officer is harmed or killed, every sentencing option should be on the table,” association president and Miami Shores Police Chief Kevin Lystad said in a statement