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State attorney challenges Gov. Rick Scott's authority to pull her off cop-slaying case

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced on March 16 that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty as a sentence in any case brought before the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida. [Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel via AP]

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced on March 16 that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty as a sentence in any case brought before the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida. [Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel via AP]

ORLANDO — A Florida state attorney says the governor overstepped his bounds when he removed her from the case of a man accused of killing a police officer after she pledged to not pursue the death penalty.

State Attorney Aramis Ayala filed a motion in court Monday asking a judge to allow her to present that argument in court.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Gov. Scott takes cop-slaying case from Orlando prosecutor over her refusal to seek death penalty

"Every day State Attorneys here in Florida make important decisions on who to charge, what to charge and what to prioritize," Ayala wrote in the motion. "Giving the governor the tremendous and unfettered discretion to interfere in that decision making would be unprecedented and could undermine the entire justice system in Florida."

Gov. Rick Scott removed Ayala from Markeith Loyd's case and reassigned it to a prosecutor in a neighboring district last Thursday after Ayala announced she would not pursue the death penalty in any case while she is in office. Loyd is charged with first-degree murder in the killings of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton and his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon.

When asked in Tallahassee about Ayala's motion, Scott said Monday he was shocked that Ayala wouldn't seek the death penalty in Loyd's case.

"I'm very comfortable that I made the right decision and I had the authority to do it," Scott said.

Scott said he would "deal with it at the time" if Ayala declined to seek the death penalty in other cases. He also did not rule out seeking her removal.

"With regards to that, we're continuing to look at our options," he said.

RELATED COVERAGE: Lawyers say Rick Scott overstepped by taking case from Orlando state attorney.

Ayala said in Monday's motion that the governor had no authority to remove her.

"I retain complete authority over charging and prosecution decisions," she said.

Under the state Constitution, the governor cannot unilaterally fire a state attorney. However, he is allowed to suspend her and appoint an acting prosecutor.

The Florida Senate would have to vote to kick her out of office.

Ayala, a Democrat first elected in November, didn't run on an anti-death penalty platform. During the campaign, Florida's death penalty law was in doubt after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Scott signed new death penalty legislation into law last week that revived it as an option for prosecutors.

Ayala instead emphasized during her campaign that she would engage with average citizens if elected. She acknowledged that her husband had served time in prison for drug conspiracy and counterfeiting checks years ago.

On Monday, more than 100 lawyers signed onto a letter telling Scott they were "deeply troubled" by his decision to reassign Loyd's case to State Attorney Brad King, whose district includes Hernando, Citrus and Marion counties.

Among the lawyers critical of the governor are former Florida Supreme Court chief justices Harry Lee Anstead and Gerald Kogan; former Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte and Gil Garcetti, the Los Angeles district attorney who oversaw the O.J. Simpson case.

"We believe that this effort to remove State Attorney Ayala infringes on the vitally important independence of prosecutors, exceeds your authority, undermines the right of residents in Orange and Osceola counties to the services of their elected leaders, and sets a dangerous precedent," the lawyers wrote.

Last week, the state's other 19 state attorneys came out publicly in support of the death penalty and chided Ayala. They said in each of their circuits, they would continue seeking the death penalty in cases where they felt it was warranted.

"We affirm that the responsibility of enforcing the laws of Florida is paramount to our oath of office," they said in a statement released by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association. "The victims' families of Florida deserve our dedication to implement all the laws of Florida. That is why the people of Florida have elected us."

Ayala's campaign was helped by a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros. The committee gave Ayala's campaign almost $1 million, as well as millions of dollars to candidates in local races around the nation.

When asked if the donations influenced her decision, she said it did not.

Times Staff Writer Michael Auslen contributed to this story.

State attorney challenges Gov. Rick Scott's authority to pull her off cop-slaying case 03/20/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 12:23am]
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