Yesterday, Florida Governor Rick Scott overstepped his boundaries by removing Florida 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala from handling the Markeith Loyd murder case for her refusal to seek the death penalty. The defendant has been charged with the Orlando murders of his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon, and Orlando Police Lieutenant Debra Clayton.
State Attorney Ayala explained her decision, stating that she was no longer seeking the death penalty in any of her cases, because “Florida’s death penalty has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil.” She further said capital punishment often leads to years of appeals and other court hearings, and that it costs more than a life sentence. Florida law gives every state attorney the discretion on whether or not to seek the death penalty.
Ms. Ayala holds the distinction of being the first African American state attorney in the state of Florida. Elected in November 2016, she assumed office at the beginning of this year. In her short time in office, she now also holds the distinction of being the only prosecutor removed in this fashion by this governor.
A Florida governor has the ability to remove a state attorney. Florida Statute 27.14 provides for removal “If any state attorney is disqualified to represent the state in any investigation, case, or matter pending in the courts of his or her circuit or if, for any other good and sufficient reason, the Governor determines that the ends of justice would be best served”
This clause is commonly used when there is an ethical concern – for instance, the state attorney knows the victim, is too closely involved with the officers in the case, or was in some way not acting in the way a public official should. For instance, in the George Zimmerman case, there was a vote of no confidence in the Sanford police chief for his handling of his investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin. The State Attorney stepped aside, and a special prosecutor (Angela Corey) was appointed.
However, disagreement with the charging decision must not be the basis. In his order, Governor Scott parroted the statute by saying “justice will be served” by removing State Attorney Ayala as the prosecutor on the case.
There are several negative ramifications of the governor’s overreach. It promotes prosecutors making politically motivated charging decisions out of fear of the governor removing them. The prosecutor’s job is to always seek justice. The ramifications should come from the ballot box, not the governor’s mansion. If a prosecutor acts out of fear or political pressure, justice is no longer the objective. It also provides a chilling effect on those looking at criminal justice reform.
Additionally, there is a huge concern for the preservation of the separation of powers. Independent prosecutors are the key to justice in this country. The governor did not read the case file, is not a prosecutor or even an attorney. He cannot make an informed decision, because he only knows a portion of the facts. The prosecutor’s case file has aspects the media and public are not aware of (as it is supposed to be). This act of the governor is an attack on the Constitution, and the criminal justice system.
Governor Scott has also tainted the Florida jury pool – how is Markeith Loyd going to receive a fair trial under the laws of this land when he has announced that this should be a death case? Regardless of how one may feel about Markeith Loyd (if true, Loyd’s actions are utterly abhorrent), his guilt must be proven in a court of law, by a jury of his peers. The judicial process has to be respected.
Ms. Ayala’s statement regarding the state of the death penalty in Florida is accurate. Last year, the law on death penalty changed so that not only does the verdict of guilt need to be unanimous, but the decision to impose death must also be unanimous. Previously, if the jurors voted 10-2 in favor of death, the judge in a case could go ahead an impose the death sentence. Now, all 12 jurors must agree. If they do not agree, the defendant receives life in prison.
As a former prosecutor, getting juries for death penalty cases is a tough task. Death penalty trials are longer, cost more, and the appeals process upon conviction can drag out for years which results in a lack of finality for the victims’ families. It is not unusual for a death sentence to be carried out 20 years later, or for the inmate to die in prison before the death sentence is carried out.
I have chosen to waive death on a number of cases in my prosecutorial career, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it was based on the evidence; other times were based on the fact that the crime just did not deserve death. The wishes of the family were always considered. Choosing not to pursue the death penalty does not mean “justice is not being pursued”. Life in prison, without the possibility of parole, is justice.
For the governor to get involved in the prosecution of a case for the first time in his two terms smells of political motivation. It is rumoured that he is seeking to run for the United States Senate. No matter the intent, his actions are just plain wrong. He ignored the vote of the people. The citizens of Orlando elected Aramis Ayala as their State Attorney; they alone should decide how long she should remain in that role.