TALLAHASEE, Fla. – Heightening the controversy over a Central Florida state attorney who refuses to seek the death penalty for an accused cop-killer or other defendants accused of capital crimes, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday reassigned 21 first-degree murder cases to a special prosecutor who will handle the high-profile case of Markeith Loyd.
In a statement announcing the reassignment of the cases, Scott said he removed Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala "in the interest of justice" following her decision not to consider capital punishment in any case.
Ayala, who ousted her predecessor in a Democratic primary in August, announced last month she would not seek the death penalty for Loyd or other defendants during her time in office. Her decision refocused a spotlight on Florida's already-embattled death penalty, on hold for more than a year as a result of state and federal court rulings.
"State Attorney Ayala's complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice," Scott said.
Speaking to the Florida Legislative Black Caucus in Tallahassee, Ayala said Monday night she has "a duty and a responsibility to seek justice and do what's right."
"I need people to continue to get the word out there. This is a legally sound position that I've taken," Ayala, who served as an assistant prosecutor and law professor, told the black caucus.
After Ayala, Florida's first black elected state attorney, announced she would not seek death for Loyd --- accused in the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton --- Scott reassigned the case to outspoken death-penalty proponent Brad King, the Ocala-based state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.
Ayala's decision resulted in calls for her ouster by a number of Republican elected officials, who accused the prosecutor of failing to do her job, and sparked an outcry from a variety of state and national groups, including the NAACP, condemning Scott for his actions.
The dispute over the Loyd case --- and Ayala's refusal to seek the death penalty in other capital cases--- has galvanized opposition to the death penalty in Florida. Ayala's rationale for avoiding the death penalty was based in part on research showing its implementation is biased against minorities, and that the dragged-out process is traumatic to victims.
Ayala had asked a circuit judge to put the Loyd case on hold while she challenged Scott's decision to remove her from the case, but Orange County Circuit Judge Frederick Lauten allowed the case to move forward and said the Florida Supreme Court should rule on the issue. Ayala has appealed.
On Monday, Scott signed an executive order reassigning 21 other cases from Ayala's 9th Judicial Circuit to King. More than half of the cases involve Death Row inmates who have been --- or could be --- ordered new hearings stemming from a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's death penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. Last fall, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a revised state law aimed at addressing the federal Hurst decision because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations for death to be imposed.
Lawmakers addressed the issue last month, passing a law that required unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences. That move came just days before Ayala announced she would not seek death in any cases under her watch.
Ayala said last month when announcing her decision that, while she has the discretion to seek the death penalty in capital cases, "doing so is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice."
Ayala cited numerous problems with the death penalty as the basis for her decision, which she said she reached after "extensive and painstaking thought and consideration."
But, in Monday's statement, Scott argued that he was reassigning the cases to King on behalf of the victims' families, who "deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision."
"I cannot imagine the pain their families endure each day, and we will do all we can to aggressively fight for justice," the governor said.
Critics, including more than 100 law professors and former prosecutors and judges, accused Scott of overstepping his authority by removing Ayala from the Loyd case, and others.
"The governor's actions might reasonably cause constitutionally elected officers to believe that they are at risk when making a decision that is within their purview but is politically unpopular," said 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association death penalty steering committee.
More than two-thirds of the cases reassigned to King involve Death Row inmates whose sentences were recommended by juries in which at least one member did not recommend capital punishment.
The Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered new sentencing hearings for defendants who did not have unanimous jury recommendations. More than half of Florida's nearly 400 Death Row inmates are expected to be eligible for new sentencing hearings as a result of the state court's decision in cases related to Hurst.
"The current state attorney has been elected to make these judgments, and these judgments include a fresh look at the evidence, a determination in terms of what the issues have been and then, finally, the status of the law. And the law is different now than when these charges were made," said Talbot “Sandy” D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and former president of Florida State University who signed the letter objected to Scott's ouster of Ayala. "The reason that prosecutors fought so hard to keep the number of jurors less than unanimous was that it was easier for them to get convictions that way."
D'Alemberte said it is up to local officials to decide whether to pursue the death penalty, especially given evolving views on the issue.
"At some point, a state attorney has to take into consideration the changing attitudes," he said.