State Attorney Aramis Ayala has officially filed a federal lawsuit against Florida Governor Rick Scott after he forcibly removed Ayala from a high-profile murder case for refusing to seek the death penalty.
The lawsuit comes after weeks of heated public debate, “dueling” protests and rallies, and Gov. Scott’s re-assignment of an additional 21 murder cases last week. Florida lawmakers are now using the momentum from Scott’s disturbingly popular decision to slash the budget of Ayala’s district by at least $1 million, impacting all of her cases–not just those with the death penalty on the table.
State Attorney Ayala presides over Orange and Osceola counties, where Downtown Orlando and Disney World are located, respectively. Ayala was formerly assigned the case against Markeith Loyd, an Orlando man who was initially accused of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend.
The weeks-long search for Loyd resulted in the death of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton, who was shot and killed during their confrontation. Loyd managed to escape again and another officer was killed in a traffic accident during the manhunt; he was eventually captured, alive but badly beaten.
Last month, as court dates were approaching for Loyd’s case, State Attorney Ayala held a press conference to announce she would not pursue the death penalty in his case, or any other case during her time in office. Gov. Scott took immediate action and issued an executive order to remove her from the case. His decision was met with more praise than outrage, as locals consider the case extraordinarily brutal.
State Attorney Ayala is the first African American state attorney elected in Florida; now she also holds the distinction of being the first person to ever be removed from a case by Gov. Scott by executive action for a reason beyond ethical conflicts of interest. Members of the ACLU and the NAACP were among the few who rushed to Ayala’s defense, and her supporters recently held a protest in the state’s capital of Tallahassee.
Four days later, seemingly in response to these protests, Gov. Scott formally re-assigned an additional 21 murder cases–cases that the governor clearly believes should result in death penalties.
A House budget subcommittee voted to cut $1.3 million and 21 positions from State Attorney Ayala’s district, and a Senate panel proposed $1.46 million with the same cut of 21 jobs. Neither decision has been finalized, but local outlets are reporting that the proposed cuts to Ayala’s office will be re-allocated to the state attorney offices presiding over her former cases.
Conveniently, every single one of the 22 total cases have been re-assigned to State Attorney Brad King, a Republican prosecutor in a neighboring district. Florida’s House and Senate are Republican-controlled, and conservative lawmakers are taking full advantage of Gov. Scott’s positive press by proposing budget cuts to Ayala’s district.
According to a statement from Ayala’s office, less than .01% of their cases are death penalty cases, and the budget cuts will severely impact all other law enforcement efforts in the immediate Orlando area.
“The impact of cutting $1.3 million [or more] and eliminating 21 positions would severely impact this agency’s ability to effectively prosecute crimes, threaten public safety and ultimately have an economic impact on the Central Florida community,” said the spokesperson.
Gov. Scott’s Republican buddies are purposefully re-allocating a substantial sum of money away from a district with much higher crime rates. Not to mention, Orange County by itself is more populated than State Attorney King’s district of five counties, for a grand total of over 515,000 more residents. No matter one’s stance on the death penalty or the case’s formerly under Ayala’s care, Floridians should be outraged about the unjust budget cuts to her office.
State Attorney Ayala is formally fighting back against Gov. Scott’s snowballing authoritarian overreach. Scott has made it clear that he would like his publicly-elected officials to play politics by rewarding prosecutors willing to seek the death penalty–he’s setting an example of using executive action to interfere with a state attorneys right to prosecute as they see fit. Scott has also effectively ruined the jury pool in the entire state of Florida for all 22 defendants by publicly implying that these individuals should receive the death penalty.
“The governor did not take this drastic step because of any misconduct on Ayala’s part, but simply because he disagreed with her reasoned prosecutorial determination not to seek the death penalty under current circumstances,” said Ayala’s attorney, Roy Austin.
Everyone in the city of Orlando claims they want justice for these victims, as Markeith Loyd’s alleged actions are shocking and disgusting. However, it seems like many simply want Loyd dead.
Even though the case appears to be a simple verdict, it is alarming that residents are praising the decision to directly seek death for a man who has not received a fair trial. This is not the first time Orlando has been swept up in a controversial, high-profile murder case. In fact, State Attorney Ayala won her Democratic primary against Casey Anthony’s former prosecutor, Jeff Ashton.
Orlando residents are also recovering from the trauma of the Pulse shooting tragedy, during which the Orlando Police Department were our first responders–including fallen Lt. Debra Clayton. Perhaps it is city pride, fear, or angered confusion that has caused so many to inadvertently turn a blind eye to the phrase, “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”
“All State Attorney Ayala wants is the ability to seek justice for her community in the best way that she knows based on facts and data,” said Austin. “We are asking the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court in Orlando to ensure the integrity and independence of the justice system as both federal and state law require.”
State Attorney Ayala has rightfully defended her stance, explaining that there is no data to show that the death penalty keeps the general public or law enforcement officers any safer, and these cases are more expensive to pursue than life sentences. She ran her 2016 campaign on her anti-death penalty stance, and a new study shows that her constituents in Orange and Osceola counties prefer life sentences to the death penalty.
While Ayala had the right to preside over these cases as she saw fit, Gov. Scott also had the right to remove her by executive action, thanks to an obscure Florida law. Her lawsuit may be an uphill battle, but it’s one she is willing to fight.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird