After Florida prosecutor says she won’t seek death penalty, Gov. reassigns case of slain officer

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Hours after a Florida prosecutor announced Thursday that she would not seek the death penalty in any cases, the state’s governor responded by saying he was removing her from the high-profile prosecution of a man charged with killing an Orlando, Florida, police officer.

The intersection of two fraught topics – the shooting death of a police officer and capital punishment – gave way to a remarkably public showdown involving an elected state attorney, Republican state officials and law enforcement leaders.

Running through it all was a dispute over the death penalty in a state that has long been one of the country’s most active proponents of it but, more recently, has struggled with the practice.

This particular confrontation hinged on the prosecution of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of fatally shooting Debra Clayton, an Orlando police officer, last year. After Aramis Ayala, the state prosecutor for the Orlando area, said Thursday that she would not seek any death sentences, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, lashed out and called for her to withdraw from the Loyd case.

“I completely disagree with State Attorney Ayala’s decision and comments, and I am asking her to recuse herself immediately from this case,” Scott said in a statement. “She has made it abundantly clear that she will not fight for justice for Lt. Debra Clayton and our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day.”

Loyd is also accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Adding to the toll, while law enforcement officials were hunting for him, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis was killed in a traffic accident.

According to Scott, Ayala told him she would not be recusing herself from the case. As a result, he said he was using his “executive authority” to give the case to another prosecutor’s office.

“I am outraged and sickened by this loss of life and many families’ lives have been forever changed because of these senseless murders,” Scott said in a statement announcing his decision. “These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served.”

In a statement, Ayala said that she spoke with Scott on Thursday afternoon and “offered to have a full conversation with him regarding my decision about death penalty.” Scott declined, she said, and she later learned that he had issued an executive order reassigning the case.

Ayala, who took office in January, said that upon receiving “any lawful order,” her office would follow it and cooperate “to ensure the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd.”

In her announcement Thursday, Ayala highlighted the upheaval that has suffused Florida’s death penalty in recent years.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s death-sentencing scheme last year, saying Florida gave judges too much power over sentences, effectively freezing the death penalty there. Florida lawmakers rewrote the death penalty statute to pass muster, but it was struck down again, this time by the state Supreme Court, which later ruled that a large portion of the state’s death row inmates could potentially seek new sentences.

Earlier this week, Scott signed another death penalty statute into effect, this one aimed at addressing the Florida Supreme Court’s concerns with the law he signed last year, which still did not require unanimous juries.

The end result, though, has been a halt to Florida’s death penalty, as the state has not carried out a lethal injection since January 2016, helping contribute to an overall decline nationwide in executions.

“Florida’s death penalty has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil,” Ayala said at a news conference Thursday morning.

Ayala pointed to the extensive waits that often elapse between sentences and the executions that are actually carried out, a period that can stretch for years and decades, and said: “I cannot in good faith look a victim’s family in the face and promise that a death sentence handed down in our courts will ever result in execution.”

As the state attorney in the Orlando area, one of the most populous parts of a state, Ayala is responsible for an area that encompasses more than 1 million residents as well as the scores of tourists who visit the region.

Her decision not to seek a death sentence was praised by groups that have opposed the death penalty. The Fair Punishment Project called her choice “refreshing.” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Ayala was “at the forefront of smart-on-crime prosecutors” and issued a statement supporting her decision.

“Given the persistent racial disproportionality in the administration of the death penalty, the research showing that the death penalty does not deter crime, and the fact that capital cases are unjustifiably expensive given their reversal rate and the very real prospect of wrongful conviction and execution, Ms. Ayala properly concluded that it is time for Florida to stop tinkering with the machinery of death,” Ifill said in a statement. “Other prosecutors would be wise to follow her lead.”

Ayala drew equally fierce condemnation from supporters of the death penalty, a group that included Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office has defended the state’s death-sentencing statutes.

Bondi excoriated Ayala for a decision she said “sends a dangerous message to residents and visitors of the greater Orlando area” and went on to call “a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer.”

Prominent members of law enforcement in the Orlando community also weighed in against Ayala’s move. John Mina, the city’s police chief, said he had spoken with Ayala and was “extremely upset” with her decision.

“I have seen the video of Markeith Loyd executing Lt. Debra Clayton while she lay defenseless on the ground,” Mina, who drew national attention during the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre last year, said in a statement. “She was given no chance to live. A cop killer – who also killed his pregnant girlfriend – should not be given that chance.”

Mina said that crimes like those Loyd is accused of committing “are the very reason we have the death penalty as an option under the law.”

Mina said Thursday that he backed Scott’s decision.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said that Ayala contacted him Wednesday, and while he said “it is her decision to make,” he also hoped she would reconsider. One of Demings’s deputies, Norm Lewis, was killed in a car accident while responding to Clayton’s shooting.

Demings said he hoped Ayala would “consider the wishes of the victims’ families and try these cases with death as the penalty.”

Scott signed an executive order saying that Ayala was making her decision “without regard” for whether aggravating factors – things that can warrant a death sentence – were present in the case.

Under Florida law, aggravating factors include whether the victim of a capital felony “was a law enforcement officer engaged in the performance of his or her official duties” and whether the felony “was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Mark Berman