Florida Supreme Court OKs Death Penalty Reassignments

By Alex Pickett

(CN) – The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed state attorney Aramis Ayala’s petition challenging Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to reassign 29 capital murder cases after she publicly refused to pursue the death penalty.

Ayala, whose office covers Orlando and surrounding Orange and Osceola counties, announced her decision to not seek the death penalty in March, including in the case of accused cop killer Markeith Loyd.

After a backlash from police and lawmakers, Gov. Scott issued the executive orders reassigning the first-degree murder cases from Ayala’s 9th Judicial Circuit to state attorney Brad King, who is lead prosecutor for the 5th Judicial Circuit. Ayala filed suit a month later.

In a 5-2 decision, the justices reaffirmed Gov. Scott’s “supreme executive power” to reassign cases, just as he can move state attorneys to other circuits or fire them for malfeasance.

“Ayala’s blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case … does not reflect an exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” Justice C. Alan Lawson writes in the opinion. “It embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law.”

Lawson, a recent appointee of Gov. Scott, was joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Ricky Polson, Justice Fred Lewis and Justice Charles Canady.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote, “The governor’s decision in this case fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of duly-elected state attorneys.”

Justice Peggy Quince joined in the dissenting opinion.

In a statement, Gov. Scott called the decision “a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime.”

“I absolutely disagreed with state attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice,” he said. “That’s why I’ve used my executive authority to reassign nearly 30 cases to state attorney Brad King.”

“She unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening,” he added, “In Florida, we hold criminals fully accountable for the crimes they commit – especially those that attack our law enforcement community and innocent children.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi also praised the ruling.

“Today’s Florida Supreme Court decision is a tremendous victory for victims and their loved ones,” she said in a statement. “As my solicitor general argued, the governor has every right to reassign these cases to prosecutors who will uphold the laws of our great state. This year, we have seen the brutal murders of law enforcement officers in state attorney Aramis Ayala’s circuit, and her unconscionable decision to never seek the death penalty will not be tolerated.”

After the decision, Ayala held a press conference.

“I respect the decision and appreciate that the Supreme Court of Florida has responded and issued an opinion,” she said. “This has now set the stage of how I will move forward.”

Ayala announced the formation of a panel of seven attorneys in her office to review all first-degree murder cases and make a recommendation of the proper sentence. If that recommendation is the death penalty, she will follow it, Ayala said.

“I have no intention of usurping the authority which I have granted,” she said.

In the last year, Florida’s capital punishment statute was twice declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court, because the law did not require a unanimous decision by the jury.

In one of the first bills to pass the state’s legislative session, lawmakers changed the law to require unanimous jury recommendations in death penalty cases.

Last week, Florida executed its first death row inmate in 18 months.

Florida has 370 inmates on death row – the second highest number in the nation.

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