Florida Supreme Court rules against Ayala on Scott's reassigning of death penalty cases

By: Jason Kelly

Updated:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday denied State Attorney Aramis Ayala's petition challenging Gov. Rick Scott’s authority to reassign death penalty cases.

The court ruled in a 5-2 decision that Scott was within his right to reassign the prosecution of death penalty eligible cases to a special prosecutor.

The dispute began in March when Channel 9 broke that Ayala wouldn't seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd -- who's accused of fatally shooting his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police lieutenant -- or any other case during her tenure.

Read: Rick Scott’s, Aramis Ayala’s arguments over death penalty heard in Supreme Court

Read: 9 Investigates: Emails show months of collaboration between Ayala, anti-death penalty groups

Scott said he reassigned the 29 cases to State Attorney Brad King because Ayala wasn't following Florida law. Ayala argued that Scott didn't have the right to take the cases from her because she was independently elected.

Ayala sued Scott, claiming that he abused his authority by reassigning the cases. In June, attorneys for both sides presented their arguments to the court.

Ayala's attorney's argued that it was her prerogative to seek whichever penalty she pleased, while Scott's attorney's argued that he could reassign the cases if Ayala wouldn't do her job.

"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 an opinion issued Thursday. "It embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law."

Read: Ayala: Scott changed his view on meddling in cases

Read: Ayala says Scott violated constitution by removing her from death penalty cases

Scott in a written statement on Thursday called the court's ruling a victory for the victims of violent crimes and their relatives.

"I absolutely disagreed with State Attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice," Scott said. "That’s why I’ve used my executive authority to reassign nearly 30 cases to State Attorney Brad King."

Such violent crimes are "pure evil" and "deserve the absolute full consideration of punishment -- something that State Attorney Ayala completely ruled out," Scott said.

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

Read: Bondi files motion supporting Scott’s claims against Ayala

Read: Ayala calls budget cuts to office ‘political posturing'

Ayala on Thursday released a written statement, saying that she respects the decision and appreciates the court's response and clarification.

"The Supreme Court of Florida ruled today that a case-specific determination must be made on first-degree murder cases," Ayala said. "To ensure today’s Court’s decision is heeded, I have organized a Death Penalty Review Panel comprised of seven well-versed and experienced Assistant State Attorneys."

Ayala said that the panel will evaluate each first-degree murder case in the 9th Judicial Circuit.

"With implementation of this Panel, it is my expectation that going forward, all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly," she said.

It's unclear if the governor plans to continue reassigning Ayala cases.

"The key is going to be is she going to make sure that she's justice. Is she going to enforce the law? You know, we have laws in this state when you're elected in this state. Whether you're the governor or you're state attorney, you're expected to enforce the law. I'm going to enforce the law. So we'll see what happens," Scott said Thursday afternoon when questioned by Channel 9's Field Sutton.

Watch our full interview with Gov. Scott below:

Statement from Roy L. Austin, Jr., attorney for Ayala:

"I respect the ruling of the Florida Supreme Court.  State Attorney Aramis Ayala intended to exercise prosecutorial discretion when she announced how she would handle death penalty cases in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. The court’s ruling today does not take into account that every day prosecutors around the country exercise their discretion both individually and broadly. For example, when an elected prosecutor decides not to prosecute certain drug possession cases, though the law on the books makes that a crime, that prosecutor is using discretion to make a blanket decision that is fair to all in that community.

"As the dissent held, 'The governor’s decision in this case fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of duly elected state attorneys.' In addition, it is noteworthy that the decision does not address the enormous cost of or the lack of a public or law enforcement safety rationale for the death penalty.

"Ayala has always intended to follow the guidance she was given by the Florida Supreme Court. To ensure that she is doing so, she has set up a panel of experienced attorneys in her Office to review all death-penalty eligible cases. By setting this up, State Attorney Ayala’s action is well within the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling and all cases should be returned to her and no further cases should be removed from her.  This gives the governor the opportunity to return the cases to the people of Orange and Osceola Counties."

Scott said in response to Ayala's attorney statement that it would not make any sense to return the 29 cases to Ayala's office.

Read: Officials: Rep. Bob Cortes receives threat over Ayala stance

Orlando police Chief John Mina said on Thursday that he is "grateful" for the court's ruling, saying that it allows for Loyd to be "punished to the full extent of the law."

"I have seen the video of Markeith Loyd executing Lt. Debra Clayton while she lay defenseless on the ground. She was given no chance to live," Mina said. "A cop killer, who also killed his pregnant girlfriend, should not be given that chance."

ACLU of Florida statement:

"This is a deeply disappointing decision. Florida law gives independently elected State Attorneys broad discretion to determine how best to seek justice in the cases they are responsible for prosecuting. Florida State Attorneys answer to the voters they represent, not to the governor.

"Gov. Scott's intervention in State Attorney Ayala's cases dangerously undermines the independence of our state's prosecutors, and the Supreme Court's regrettable decision today opens the door to further politicizing of our justice system." 

Florida Sheriffs Association statement:

"Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that Gov. Scott acted in the best interests of Floridians in reassigning more than 30 death penalty cases from State Attorney Ayala in the Ninth Judicial Circuit to Fifth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. As a representative of the law, Ayala was not serving to the best of her ability when she announced she would not consider the death penalty in any of those cases.

We thank Gov. Scott for his continued support of law enforcement in this great state, and his desire to ensure justice is served without bias or prejudice. The Sheriffs of Florida will continue to be guardians of the law and protectors of every Florida resident.”

Florida Police Chief Association's statement:

"This ruling is certainly a victory for victims of crime and their families, especially for the colleagues, families and friends of fallen law enforcement officers," said Miami Shores police Chief Kevin Lystad, the association president. "The Florida Police Chiefs Association feels very strongly that when an officer is harmed or killed, every sentencing option should be on the table. We appreciate that the Court has affirmed this and we are very grateful for Governor Scott's leadership on this issue."

Kissimmee police Chief Jeff O'Dell statement:

"While the Kissimmee Police Department has an outstanding working relationship with State Attorney Aramis Ayala and her staff, I am extremely appreciative of the Florida Supreme Court ruling in support of Gov. Scott’s authority to reassign death-penalty cases.

“Everett Glenn Miller senselessly murdered two outstanding law enforcement professionals who cared about their community. These men were husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. For the families of these two heroes, there can be no other option than the pursuit of justice through the fullest extent Florida law allows."

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings statement:

"We have a well-established system of jurisprudence in our nation and within the state of Florida. And, I believe that the system has worked in this instance.

“As sheriff, I respect the rule of law and the wishes of victims and survivors of violent crimes. May justice prevail in upcoming death penalty cases!"

Photos: Orange County inmates on death row

State Rep. Bob Cortes has renewed his call for Ayala to be suspended. The governor said he'll make sure Ayala upholds the law, but would not say if he would suspend her.

"This is a brutal decision for Aramis Ayala. Saying brutal is an understatement," said former Orange, Osceola County Chief Judge Belvin Perry. "She created a great rift between the community, law enforcement and her office."

Watch below on what former Chief Judge Belvin Perry thinks about Fl. Supreme Court decision:

Ayala said she plans to hold a news conference Friday about Thursday's ruling.

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