Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that her office would not take "the death penalty in any cases" after Governor Rick Scott said he wanted Markeith Loyd prosecuted for killing a police officer. Ayala, the first black female prosecutor in Florida, claimed she reviewed the case and concluded "that there is no evidence to show that imposing the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement." She said her office would not seek the death penalty as long as she remains an appointed State Attorney.
After her refusal to handle the case in the manner Scott wanted, the first-degree murder case was transferred to State Attorney Brad King of northwest Orlando.
"I have given this issue extensive, painstaking thought and consideration," Ayala said about her decision. "What has become abundantly clear through this process is that while I do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice."
Since her election this previous fall, Ayala has shifted from a conservative to liberal stance in how she handles her cases. Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, "said no other prosecutor in recent memory has opted out of seeking the death penalty." According to Tasha Jamerson of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, prosecutors who "opt out" of the death penalty are not counted, meaning no one keeps track of them.
Before Scott signed the transfer order, Ayala had refused to recuse herself from the case. Under Florida law, an elected official cannot be suspended for refusing the death penalty, and only for "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence, or permanent inability to perform official duties." However, the law does allow the governor to reassign a case with good reason.
"She has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case," Scott said in a statement.
The state's Attorney General, Pam Bondi, said Ayala's decision sent the wrong message to both visitors and residents, calling it "a blatant neglect of duty." However, other officials and association representatives have hailed it as "a step in the right direction."
According to the New York Times, Ayala announced her decision after Gov. Scott "signed a bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before the death penalty can be imposed."
The bill was proposed and passed in order to restart death penalty cases after the original Florida law came into question. In January 2016, the United States Supreme Court "declared the state's death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision" following the Hurst v. Florida case. In that instance, the judge, not the jury, was supposed to find critical facts in order to pass a death penalty sentence. Following that case, Florida legislation required the jury members to find "at least one aggravating circumstance" before making a fatal ruling. However, legislators did say judges could rule in favor of the death penalty if 10 out of 12 jurors recommended it.
In October of that same year, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to "strike down" the unanimous jury law in Perry v. State, saying that it "violated the state and federal constitutions because it unconstitutionally permitted the judge to impose death despite a non-unanimous sentencing recommendation by the jury."
Courts are now only allowed to impose a death sentence with a unanimous jury vote.