Photo via Aramis Ayala campaign
Central Florida's Republican representatives are asking
Gov. Rick Scott to suspend Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala from office in response to her decision not to pursue the death penalty for cases under her tenure.
Scott upped the ante on Monday when he decided to reassign 21 first-degree murder cases from Ayala's office to Ocala-based State Attorney Brad King, the same prosecutor who was assigned the case of murder suspect Markeith Loyd. GOP lawmakers gathered on Tuesday in Tallahassee applauded Scott's order, but want the governor to go further and suspend Ayala from her position.
"I believe State Attorney Aramis Ayala is abusing the prosecutorial discretion in a way that it was not intended," says state Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs. "This discretion is used to determine how to prosecute a crime based on evidence from each individual case, not all the cases, as the state attorney determined by her blanket statement back in March."
Cortes was joined at Tuesday's press conference by state Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood; Mike Miller, R-Winter Park; Rene "Coach P" Plasencia, R-Orlando; and Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud.
Cortes says Scott has the authority under a state law
that says the governor can suspend an elected official for "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence, or permanent inability to perform official duties." Cortes says Ayala could be suspended for neglecting her duties and trying to change the laws.
"What happens in all cases in the future that may qualify or may have aggravated circumstances for a death penalty case?" Cortes says. "Will the governor have to step in and issue executive orders for each case in the future? Is this best serving the interests both of victims, defendants and the residents of the Ninth Judicial Circuit?"
House Republicans have targeted Ayala by proposing cuts to her office that would slash the budget by $1.3 million and eliminate 21 positions, moving the resources to a fund for prosecutors who are reassigned death penalty cases. Ayala has called these cuts "political posturing"
and says they will severely impact the agency's ability to prosecute crimes. At the news conference, Plakon says Ayala's office has a significant number of vacant positions already and no harm has come.
Cortes says he disagrees with the idea that lawmakers are targeting Ayala because she's black. Ayala is the first African-American elected state attorney in Florida. Cortes says he's Hispanic himself, so race has nothing to do with it. For clarification, though, neither "Hispanic" nor "Latino" are considered a race.
Cortes also says racial concerns don't apply to the death penalty because more white people are on Florida's death row than black people and other factors can skew that number, such as generational poverty. While that may technically be true, it's a bit misleading. Out of the 371
prisoners on death row, 214 are white (58 percent) and 143 are black (39 percent). But black people only make up about 17 percent
of Florida's population in total. So while there are more white people on death row, there's a disproportionate number of black people on there as well. Last year, an investigation
by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
found that despite black and white people committing the same crimes in Florida, black people spent more time behind bars and there was no consistency in sentencing between judges across the state.
Some Florida Democrats have pushed hard against the governor's decision, including state Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando. In an op-ed for the New York Times
, Bracy talked about a bill he sponsored to require juries to be unanimous when issuing a death sentence after both the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court found the state's sentencing scheme to be unconstitutional.
"This is not just a dispute over the death penalty," Bracy writes. "It’s also about the governor’s brazen lack of respect for prosecutorial independence, which is critical to the functioning of the legal system. Not only is it unclear whether the governor has the authority to make these reassignments, but in substituting his judgment for Ms. Ayala’s, he is also sending a dangerous message to prosecutors in Florida that politics will supersede their discretion."
Bracy says that while he may not agree with Ayala's decision not to pursue the death penalty at all, he does affirm her right as an elected prosecutor to make that choice.
"Although Ms. Ayala’s critics have denounced her actions as dereliction of duty, they cannot point to a single law or statute that she has violated," he writes. "That’s because she hasn’t. There are no federal or state laws that say prosecutors must seek death sentence. … As a black man, I see the death penalty as a powerful symbol of injustice in which race often determines who lives and who dies, especially in Florida."