DeSantis blames Orlando prosecutor after shootings. But it’s not simple.

Orange County Sheriff’s deputies failed to pursue DNA testing on a gun found at the scene of Keith Moses’ only previous adult arrest.
State Attorney Monique H. Worrell holds a news conference on Jan. 28, 2022. Worrell and her office have come under fire from Gov. Ron DeSantis for not doing more in previous cases involving the suspect in the Orlando shootings last week that killed a child, a journalist and a woman.
State Attorney Monique H. Worrell holds a news conference on Jan. 28, 2022. Worrell and her office have come under fire from Gov. Ron DeSantis for not doing more in previous cases involving the suspect in the Orlando shootings last week that killed a child, a journalist and a woman. [ RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published March 1|Updated March 1

TALLAHASSEE — When a teenage gunman in Orlando was accused of shooting and killing a 9-year-old girl, a journalist and a 38-year-old woman last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott were quick to criticize the county’s prosecutor for not doing more to hold the suspect accountable in previous cases.

The gunman’s lengthy juvenile record was further evidence of “woke” prosecutors, they said. DeSantis accused Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, a Democrat, of refusing to prosecute people.

“I know the state attorney in Orlando thinks that you don’t prosecute people, and that’s the way that somehow you have better communities. That does not work,” DeSantis, a Republican, said this week. His comments echoed his criticisms of ousted Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.

The reality behind the case of 19-year-old Keith Moses, charged with three counts of first-degree murder, appears to be messier.

His juvenile record is sealed, and details on those cases, and how prosecutors handled them, is not known. Worrell took office in January 2021. Moses turned 18 in June that year.

In Moses’ only prior arrest as an adult — a 2021 drug case — Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies failed to pursue DNA testing on a gun found at the scene, a sheriff’s office spokesperson confirmed Tuesday. If Moses’ DNA was found on the gun, he could have been charged with a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Instead, Moses was charged with two misdemeanor marijuana-related charges. Those charges were dropped when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — which reports to DeSantis — was unable to determine whether the substance was marijuana or hemp, records show.

The Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s office has been on edge since August, when DeSantis removed Warren, saying Warren was refusing to enforce certain laws.

Warren signed statements by the advocacy group Fair and Just Prosecution pledging not to prosecute people accused of transgender- or abortion-related crimes, which DeSantis argued was evidence of Warren’s incompetence.

Related: DeSantis prevailed over Andrew Warren. Other lawsuits show what might come next.

During the federal trial over Warren’s ouster, Worrell’s name surfaced multiple times.

Worrell was the only other prosecutor in Florida who signed the statement about transgender crimes. She did not sign the statement about abortion.

When DeSantis’ public safety czar, Larry Keefe, was reviewing prosecutors for potential removal, they consulted with Orange County Sheriff John Mina, a Democrat.

Mina told Keefe that “to be a law enforcement sheriff in that area (Orlando) was very difficult,” Keefe testified.

Mina directed Keefe to Warren, however. Mina knew of Warren’s “reputation” as a “(George) Soros-progressive prosecutor,” referring to the billionaire liberal donor, Keefe testified.

Moses is accused of shooting and killing 38-year-old Natacha Augustin, then returning to the scene while police were investigating and firing numerous shots into the crowd, killing 9-year-old T’yonna Major and Spectrum News 13 reporter Dylan Lyons. The girl’s mother and a Spectrum News 13 videographer were wounded.

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Worrell told Spectrum News 13 on Tuesday that her office couldn’t prosecute the 2021 drug case against Moses because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was unable to verify the substance found was marijuana.

“We could not legally prosecute this case, and my office follows the law,” Worrell said.

She said the sheriff’s office never presented any evidence tying Moses to the gun.

The sheriff’s office’s failure to test it, confirmed by a spokesperson, has not been previously reported.

DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, sent a letter to Worrell’s office on Tuesday demanding answers on why Moses wasn’t prosecuted in the 2021 case and requesting all records about Moses.

Newman wrote that “our records” show Moses had been arrested as a juvenile on charges of battery, burglary, larceny, robbery with a firearm, possession of a firearm, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, and multiple instances of resisting an officer.

“Tragically, despite the clear threat that Mr. Moses posed to our community, you apparently made the decision to not pursue charges against him,” Newman wrote.

When asked about the sheriff’s failure to conduct DNA testing on the gun, DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern declined to comment.

“The letter speaks for itself,” he wrote.

Republican Sen. Scott also weighed in on Moses’ record, calling for “every prosecutor that chose to give this young criminal a pass” to be fired.

“These innocent Floridians were the victims of past justice denied and a leftist, soft-on-crime approach that is spreading like cancer through America’s criminal justice system,” Scott said in a news release.

Little is known about Moses’ juvenile record, which is not public. After Moses was arrested last week, Mina told reporters that his record included numerous serious crimes.

“At 19, he has a lengthy criminal history to include gun charges, aggravated battery and assault with a deadly weapon, burglary and grand theft charges,” Mina said.

Moses’ only previous arrest as an adult was on Nov. 12, 2021.

He and his two occupants were stopped when a deputy saw them smoking marijuana in their car in Pine Hills, an unincorporated neighborhood northwest of Orlando, the deputy wrote in Moses’ arrest report.

As the deputy approached the car, someone on the passenger’s side tossed a loaded handgun into the bushes.

Moses, 18, was in the rear passenger’s seat. A 16-year-old was in the front passenger’s seat. The driver, 19, took off running, according to the report.

Deputies found ski masks in the car. The handgun was found in nearby shrubs, loaded with 15 rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.

All three people in the car had extensive criminal records, including attempted murder and armed robbery, the deputy wrote. They denied knowing anything about the gun.

To find out who had the gun, the deputy wrote that he would submit it for DNA testing.

“I will be authoring DNA warrants for all three subjects to compare against the recovered firearm and any other articles that could contain his DNA,” the deputy wrote.

That never happened.

When asked why, an Orange County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson couldn’t say.

“We really don’t know the answer to that question,” the spokesperson told the Times/Herald.

If DNA tests had confirmed Moses was in possession of the gun, it could have subjected him to more serious charges. Although Moses was 18, he was on juvenile felony probation for his previous cases, making it a second-degree felony to possess a firearm until he was 24.

In August, the gun found at the scene was test-fired by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to see if it was used in any other crimes.

The department spokesperson said Tuesday that they are “checking to see whether there are any results from that comparison.”