Court Sides with Scott in Ayala-Scott Death Penalty Reassignment Dispute

Florida Supreme Court says calling a blanket policy an exercise of discretion is a "misunderstanding of Florida law."

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ORLANDO — Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala has lost her battle against Gov. Rick Scott’s reassignment of her death penalty cases to Lake County prosecutor Brad King.

On Thursday the Florida Supreme Court denied her petition challenging Gov. Rick Scott’s authority to reassign death penalty cases, ruling by a 5-2 margin that the governor does in fact have the right to take death penalty eligible cases from one prosecutor and reassign them to a special prosecutor.

Back in March 2017 Ayala announced that her office would not seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, a defendant accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and then shooting and killing Orlando Police Officer Debra Clayton when she tried to apprehend him. In her announcement, Ayala went on to say she would furthermore not seek the death penalty in any other case during her tenure as State Attorney.

The expected backlash included Gov. Scott’s demand that she rescind her newly-stated policy immediately.  When she refused, the governor reassigned her death penalty cases to King.  Ayala then instituted legal proceedings against Gov. Scott, arguing that whether or not to seek the death penalty was a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

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In its decision, the Supreme Court said that a blanket refusal to seek the death penalty is not a legitimate exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

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

The decision strengthens the governor’s position as a controlling agent in review of the actions of local county prosecutors.