Florida Supreme Court hears death penalty-prosecutor dispute

Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Supreme Court scrutinized a prosecutor over her refusal to seek the death penalty in two dozen murder cases, and a justice suggested during arguments Wednesday that Gov. Rick Scott had the power to suspend the state attorney.

The case involves whether the Republican governor violated the state constitution by taking 24 murder cases out of the hands of Orlando-area State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who has said capital punishment is costly and drags on for years.

Attorney Roy Austin said Ayala, a Democrat, is an independently elected official who has the discretion to seek the death penalty or not. He said nothing in Florida law forces her to do so.

“All State Attorney Ayala asks of this court is that this court return those 24 cases to her and treat her the same and with the same respect that is given to every other state attorney in Florida,” Austin said.

It’s a case seemingly without precedent that began in March when Ayala said she wouldn’t seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd in the fatal shooting of an Orlando police lieutenant and Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend. That outraged those who felt that death is an appropriate punishment for Loyd, while death penalty opponents praised Ayala for saying she wouldn’t seek the punishment in any murder case because it’s inefficient and ineffective.

Austin said he knows of no other case where a governor has stripped a state attorney of a case without their consent. Florida Solicitor General Amit Angarwal said there has never been a state attorney who had set such a blanket policy.

Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

Angarwal said state law allows the governor to make sure laws are enforced. In Ayala’s case, he said, “It can’t be enforced. It’s like that law has been nullified.”

While the court is split between three liberal justices, three conservatives and a moderate, even the liberal justices questioned Ayala’s position because she refused to consider the death penalty on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s my concern, is that we are really taking the death penalty off the table,” Justice Barbara Pariente said. “She didn’t run on that platform, and yet she’s made this announcement after. Isn’t there something that allows the governor in that situation to say, “You know, ‘I have good and sufficient reason to remove you from those death penalty cases.'”

Justice Fred Lewis noted that under the state constitution, Scott could have sought Ayala’s suspension.

“This is not, to me, a conflict of interest kind of issue, this is ‘I’m not going to follow the law as written on the books of the state of Florida,” Lewis said before asking the governor’s attorney why Scott didn’t suspend Ayala.

Scott’s attorney said “the state constitution does give the governor kind of a sledgehammer to deal with some very big problems” but he is instead choosing to use a scalpel here.

Ayala’s attorney said she’s made it clear that she will prosecute homicide cases and seek a harsh penalty. In Florida, the only two sentencing options in first-degree murder cases are life without parole and death.

“We have to separate sentencing from whether or not we’re charging,” Austin said. “Sentencing, I would note, is a quasi-judicial function which the governor cannot intervene on.”

After the arguments, Ayala told reporters, “There are no Florida statutes that required (me) to seek the death penalty. There was no blueprint for me to follow. I did what I believed was proper under Florida law and no laws have been violated.”