Florida Gov. Rick Scott did something several experts said is unprecedented: He used an executive order to remove State Attorney Aramis Ayala from 21 murder cases Monday, reassigning them to a different prosecutor.
The sweeping order under a law usually reserved for individual conflict-of-interest cases comes three weeks after Ayala announced she would not pursue the death penalty in any cases as state attorney.
Ayala defeated her opponent in a democratic primary last year, winning 56 percent of the vote in her district, which includes Orange and Osceola counties and the city of Orlando. In so doing, she became the first African-American state attorney in Florida's history. During a March 16 news conference in which she said she would not pursue the death penalty in the case of Markeith Loyd, who stands accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and a police officer, she added that she would not pursue the death penalty in any other cases either.
"I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice," she said.
That same day, Scott removed Ayala from the Loyd case by executive order and gave it to longtime State Attorney Brad King. The Florida legislative Black Caucus, the NAACP, and a group of 119 former prosecutors, judges, and law professors condemned the governor's decision.
Amid Republican state legislative proposals to slash the budget of Ayala's office and allot the money instead to state attorneys who are pursuing the death penalty, Scott reassigned another 21 of Ayala's murder cases to King by executive order.
"State Attorney Ayala's complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice," Scott said in a statement.
Emory University law professor and prosecutorial power expert Kim Levine could not recall a situation when a governor had reassigned so many cases because of a prosecutor's unwillingness to pursue the death penalty.
"The criminal justice system is not a pyramid with the governor at the top," she said. "The people's accountability mechanism is to vote prosecutors out of office. We don't have a tradition in this country of state officials punishing county officials for being responsive to the people."
During the campaign, Ayala didn't express her views about the death penalty explicitly, but she said she wanted a criminal justice system that is more fair, honest, and transparent. Her campaign was backed by liberal billionaire George Soros.
It's been a tough couple of years for Florida death penalty proponents. In January 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida could no longer allow judges to sentence people to death. And in October 2016, the state's subsequent fix — allowing juries to sentence people to death with at least a 10-2 decision — was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court. Scott had signed the state's fix to the state's fix — mandating unanimous jury decisions for death penalty sentences — just two days before Ayala announced she would not be pursuing the death penalty.
Florida has executed 23 people under Scott, more than under any other governor since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1979. He's been governor since 2010.
Ayala isn't the only newly elected prosecutor to come out against the death penalty. Denver District Attorney Beth McCann announced in January that she wouldn't pursue capital punishment in any cases. "I don't think that the state should be in the business of killing people," she said.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for Ayala said, "Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position. The governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system."
King announced Tuesday that he will pursue the death penalty in the Loyd case. So far Ayala's office is cooperating with the order.