The Florida Supreme Court says Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala does not have the authority to issue a blanket policy to not pursue the death penalty in murder cases.
The court on Thursday upheld Gov. Rick Scott’s orders reassigning capital cases from Ayala to another state attorney.
“Far from being unreasoned or arbitrary … the reassignments are predicated upon ‘good and sufficient reason,’ namely Ayala’s blanket refusal to pursue the death penalty in any case despite Florida law establishing the death penalty as an appropriate sentence under certain circumstances,” Justice C. Alan Lawson wrote in the majority opinion..
Ayala, who took office in January, announced in March she would not seek the death penalty for anyone convicted of murder.
Since Ayala made that proclamation, Scott has reassigned 29 murder cases from Ayala to another state attorney.
“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime,” Scott said in a written statement following the court’s decision. “I absolutely disagreed with State Attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice. That’s why I’ve used my executive authority to reassign nearly 30 cases to State Attorney Brad King.”
Ayala had filed a lawsuit challenging Scott’s right to transfer the cases.
Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments from both sides during a June hearing. Ayala’s attorney argued she had “absolute discretion” under law when it comes to deciding whether to seek the death penalty in capital cases and asked the court to dismiss the governor’s orders.
The court disagreed.
“We decline the invitation because by effectively banning the death penalty in the Ninth Circuit—as opposed to making case-specific determinations as to whether the facts of each death-penalty eligible case justify seeking the death penalty—Ayala has exercised no discretion at all,” wrote Justice C. Alan Lawson in the majority opinion.
The court was split 5-2 in its ruling. Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince dissented.
“State Attorney Ayala’s decision was well within the scheme created by the Legislature and within the scope of decisions State Attorneys make every day on how to allocate their offices’ limited resources,” Justice Pariente wrote in her dissenting opinion. “Because State Attorney Ayala’s decision was within the bounds of the law and her discretion, Governor Scott did not have “good and sufficient reason” to remove her from these cases.”
Ayala drew criticism when she first announced in March that she would not pursue the death penalty in the case of Markeith Loyd or any other murder case. Loyd is accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend and Orlando police Lieutenant Debra Clayton, who tried to arrest him.
Since then, the governor has reassigned a number of high profile murder cases, including the killings of two Kissimmee police officers and a 3-year-old boy, to the state attorney’s office in Ocala.
“Crimes like these are pure evil and deserve the absolute full consideration of punishment – something that State Attorney Ayala completely ruled out,” Scott said in his statement. “She unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening.”