Rick Scott takes 21 murder cases from Orlando prosecutor who won't seek death penalty

Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he's reassigning 21 first-degree murder cases that were being prosecuted by Orange/Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, because of her refusal to seek the death penalty. [Red Huber | Orlando Sentinel/TNS]
Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he's reassigning 21 first-degree murder cases that were being prosecuted by Orange/Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, because of her refusal to seek the death penalty. [Red Huber | Orlando Sentinel/TNS]
Published April 4, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott took 21 first-degree murder cases away from Orlando-area State Attorney Aramis Ayala after she said she would not seek the death penalty in any cases.

"Each of these cases I am reassigning represents a horrific loss of life," Scott said in a statement Monday. "The families who tragically lost someone deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision."

The cases were reassigned to Brad King, a longtime proponent of the death penalty and Republican Ocala-based state attorney whose circuit covers five Central Florida counties, including Hernando. Scott shifted the cases under a constitutional provision that lets him do so if he believes it's in the best interests of justice, a power generally reserved for conflicts of interest.

After Ayala announced three weeks ago she wouldn't seek the death penalty, Scott reassigned the case of Markeith Loyd, accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton. That case was also reassigned to King's 5th Judicial Circuit, over the objections of Ayala, a Democrat first elected in November.

Eryka Washington, an Ayala spokeswoman, said her office found out about the reassigned cases after reading news reports.

"There was never official notification from (Scott's) office," Washington said in a statement. "Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system."

Republican state lawmakers have proposed cutting more than $1 million from her office's annual budget to pay for first-degree murder cases that have been reassigned to other circuits.

Along with Scott's actions, the death penalty has become a showdown highlighting the tension between the governor's powers and those of an independently elected state prosecutor. State attorneys are granted broad discretion in which cases they prosecute and what sentences they seek. That, say Ayala's defenders, is exactly what she's doing.

"(Scott) is undermining an independently elected state attorney," said Mark Elliott, executive director of nonprofit Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "This is not about seeking justice. It is about stoking the fires of anger, fear, and revenge in the hearts and minds of Floridians."

Others say she's going beyond the bounds of her office and acting against the spirit of the state's criminal justice laws.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said regardless of her position on the death penalty, Ayala needs to follow the law.

"Whenever decisions are made regarding the prosecution of individuals, the prosecutor must take into consideration the will and the desire of the victim's survivors," he said.

King's top assistant, Richard Ridgway, said his colleagues will take on the extra work. "We will do whatever it takes," he said.

The circuit has five attorneys who handle about 30 murder cases a year. Of the 21 cases reassigned by Scott, six are active prosecutions, Ridgway said. Prosecutors will travel to the Orlando area for all court proceedings.

"We haven't yet gotten a handle where it all stands," Ridgway said. "We just pick up where the cases stand."

Salaries will still be paid from the 5th Judicial Circuit, and expenses will be billed to Ayala's office, he added. But it's possible Scott or the Florida Cabinet could allocate money if the prosecutions end up costing the circuit more, Ridgway said. Attorney General Pam Bondi has offered some of her staff attorneys to help in the prosecutions, he added.

Fifteen of the 21 cases involve defendants given a reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, which invalidated the state's procedure for imposing the death penalty. The defendants could be resentenced because the jury's recommendation was not unanimous.

The resentencing phases are not as complex as the trials, but prosecutors will still have to familiarize themselves with the facts of each case, Ridgway said.

Melissa Vickers, chief assistant public defender to the Orange-Osceola public defender, said she doesn't expect Scott's ruling to alter logistics of defending the murder cases. Juries will still be picked from within the district, and any ruling or proceedings, such as depositions, will remain in place, she said.

When Ayala's predecessor, Jeff Ashton, was in office, prosecutors had announced plans to pursue the death penalty in all six active prosecutions. Ayala told members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus on Monday night that she wasn't an opponent of the death penalty when she ran for state attorney last year.

"When I took office, I had every intent of seeking the death penalty," said Ayala, the first black state attorney elected in Florida.

But given the uncertain legal status of the death penalty after Hurst, Ayala did some research. That's when she grew to oppose it, she said, viewing it more and more as an ineffective and costly measure that forced victims' families to wait years — sometimes decades — for an execution.

All that, she said, and her doubts grew that the punishment even served as a deterrent.

Information from the Orlando Sentinel and Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.