Florida State’s Attorney Sues Governor After He Reassigns Death-Penalty Cases

A hangman’s noose was sent to the state’s attorney

By Frederick H. Lowe

ORLANDO, Fla.—Aramis Ayala, the first African American elected state’s attorney in Florida, has sued Gov. Rick Scott in federal court after he reassigned 23 pending homicide cases to a district attorney in another jurisdiction because Ayala opposes the death penalty.

Aramis Ayala

Aramis Ayala

Ayala, who is the state’s attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, filed the lawsuit April 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District  of Florida in Orlando against Governor Scott and Brad King, the State’s Attorney for Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties. Scott reassigned the cases to King, knowing he will pursue the death penalty.

Governor usurped her authority, lawsuit charges

The lawsuit charges that Scott “usurped Ayala’s authority and deprived voters in the Ninth Judicial Circuit of their chosen state attorney when, under color of law, he removed Ayala from 23 pending homicide cases in her circuit and replaced her with King, a state’s attorney who was not elected by voters from Orange and Osceola counties.

The governor did not take this drastic step because of any misconduct, but simply because he disagreed with her reasoned prosecutorial determination not to see the death penalty under current circumstances.”

Voters elected her in November

Voters elected Ayala to office in November. Scott has acknowledged that state attorneys operate independently and as elected officials, they answer only to voters, the lawsuit charges.

“Yet defendants deprived the voters of Ayala’s jurisdiction of the benefit of their votes and violated Ayala’s constitutional rights—when they assumed the authority to veto the prosecutorial discretion of an independent elected official,” the lawsuit charges.

Ayala refused to pursue the death penalty in a high-profile case

The fight between Ayala and Scott is taking place with Amnesty International’s recent report as a backdrop. The organization said there were 20 executions and 32 death sentences recorded in the United States in 2016, the lowest numbers since 1991 and 1973 respectively.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Ayala and Scott began fighting after she said she would not seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd who is accused of murdering his pregnant former girlfriend and Orlando Police Lieutenant Debra Clayton. Police arrested Loyd January 17th.

In formulating reasons not to pursue the death penalty against Loyd, Ayala determined capital punishment does not have a positive impact on public safety, is racially discriminatory, discriminates against the poor, is enormously expensive, leaves victims’ families in a state of uncertainty, and is imposed on innocent people too often.

Without consulting Ayala, Scott reassigned Loyd’s case to King. A subsequent telephone conversation between Ayala and Scott quickly became heated with the governor slamming down the phone in 30 seconds, according to the lawsuit.

A hangman’s noose was sent to Ayala because of her opposition to the death penalty.

A hangman’s noose was sent to her

For taking a stand against the death penalty, Ayala has received death threats.

“I have gotten a lot of pushback,” Ayala said during a radio interview on WHPB 98.5 The Wire. “I received a noose that was mailed to my office. I received several types of derogatory and racist remarks to me personally and professionally.”

Ayala wants the court to order the return her cases

The lawsuit charges that Scott’s orders violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by diluting the weight of Ayala’s vote for state’s attorney compared to voters in King’s Fifth Judicial Circuit.

She wants the court to order Scott to reinstate her as prosecutor in all the cases. Ayala also wants the court to prevent King from assuming her cases.

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