Orlando prosecutor to no longer seek death penalty; removed from slain officer case

Aramis Ayala makes announcement while discussing Markeith Loyd prosecution

ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida's governor took a case involving the killing of a police officer out of the hands of its prosecutor Thursday, hours after she announced that her office would no longer seek the death penalty in any cases.

The unusual and firm stance against capital punishment by State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Orlando surprised and angered many law enforcement officials, including the city's police chief, who believed suspect Markeith Loyd should face the possibility of execution. Civil liberties groups, though, praised Ayala's position.

Sending a clear signal that he wanted Loyd prosecuted in a capital case, Gov. Rick Scott signed an order to transfer Loyd's first-degree murder to State Attorney Brad King in a neighboring district northwest of Orlando.

Loyd is charged with killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Ayala said she would follow the governor's order.

Ayala said she made the decision after conducting a review and concluding that there is no evidence to show that imposing the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement. She added that such cases are costly and drag on for years.

Ayala was elected last fall in a judicial district that has grown from being moderately conservative to liberal over the past two decades.

"I have given this issue extensive, painstaking thought and consideration," Ayala said at a news conference. "What has become abundantly clear through this process is that while I do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice."

Buddy Jacobs, who has been general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association for more than four decades, said no other prosecutor in recent memory has opted out of seeking the death penalty.

After Ayala announced her decision, Scott asked her to recuse herself from the case, but she refused. The reassignment applies only to Loyd's case and not Ayala's other duties since under Florida law, a governor can only suspend an elected official for "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence, or permanent inability to perform official duties."

Florida law allows a governor to reassign a case for "good and sufficient" reasons.

"She has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case," Scott said in a statement.

Ayala's decision ignited condemnation from some law enforcement leaders.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina said in a statement that he was "extremely upset."

"The heinous crimes that he (Loyd) committed in our community are the very reason that we have the death penalty as an option under the law," Mina said.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called the decision "a blatant neglect of duty," saying it sends a dangerous message to residents and visitors.

But Adora Obi Nweze of the Florida state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said it was a step in the right direction.

"Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Tasha Jamerson, said the national association doesn't keep track of prosecutors who opt out of seeking the death penalty.

Ayala's decision comes just days after Scott signed a bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before the death penalty can be imposed.

The legislation was aimed at restarting death penalty cases, after questions about Florida's death penalty law during the past year brought executions to a halt.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state's death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

The Legislature responded by overhauling the law to let the death penalty be imposed by at least a 10-2 jury vote.

In October, however, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment.

Prosecutor's stance roils death penalty debate

Republican state House members from the region held a hurriedly scheduled news conference Thursday morning and attacked Ayala for failing to pursue the death penalty against Loyd.

The lawmakers accused the prosecutor of failing to do her job, which they maintain requires her to seek the death penalty in certain instances, including cases in which law-enforcement officers were killed.

Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican whose district includes part of Orange County, said he was outraged and called it "a slap in the face" to Loyd's alleged victims and the law-enforcement community at large.

Senate budget chief Jack Latvala, who is mulling a run for governor, went further.

"I think she ought to be thrown out of office," the Clearwater Republican told reporters Thursday.

Bondi, whose office represents the state in death-penalty cases before the Florida Supreme Court, also criticized the local prosecutor.

Ayala's decision "sends a dangerous message" to residents and visitors to the Orlando area and "is a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer," Bondi said in a prepared statement.

But Jacksonville criminal-defense lawyer Bill Sheppard, who has represented defendants in capital cases for nearly five decades, disagreed.

Ayala's position is more in line with a growing national trend by courts, along with some governors and legislatures, that takes a harsher view of the death penalty, Sheppard said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"This prosecutor is reflecting the current American national values relating to the death penalty," he said. "And anybody that's saying she is not upholding the law is not familiar with the law. Prosecutors have prosecutorial discretion, and they exercise it every day. … So what is different about this other than she is going against their values but she is reflecting the current American values."

Even some death-penalty proponents agreed that Ayala enjoys latitude regarding whether to seek death sentences.

"I'm a big supporter of local discretion on filing decisions," Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.

Florida voters have the ability to vote for state attorneys every four years, Bradley said.

"Each community has its own unique challenges when it comes to dealing with criminal activity. Florida is a diverse state with a lot of different attitudes," he said. "And each community should be able to judge decisions such as the one made today and then make their judgments accordingly."

The tumult over Ayala came on the same day a House committee overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the ability to impeach state attorneys and public defenders, a power now limited to the removal of the governor, the lieutenant governor, Florida Cabinet members and judges.

Ayala's decision "goes beyond prosecutorial discretion and into the realm of dereliction of duty," said House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor in line to become speaker of the chamber in 2020.

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