Florida governor reassigns cases over prosecutor's death penalty stance

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  • Prosecutor says she feels "the governor is abusing his authority," spokeswoman says
  • Governor says her refusal to consider death penalty sends "unacceptable message"

(CNN)The Florida prosecutor who refuses to consider the death penalty now has fewer cases on her docket.

Gov. Rick Scott signed executive orders Monday taking 21 first-degree murder cases from Aramis Ayala, state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.
Ayala became aware of Scott's decision only after he released it to media outlets, her spokeswoman Eryka Washington said.
    "Ayala remains steadfast in her position the governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system," Washington said.
    The cases will be reassigned to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King, who already has inherited from Ayala the high-profile case of accused police killer Markeith Lloyd.
    "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.
    "Each of these cases I am reassigning represents a horrific loss of life. The families who tragically lost someone deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision."
    Ayala has said she cannot in good faith pursue the death penalty based on evidence that it is costly, inhumane and does not increase public safety.
    "Some victims will support and some will surely oppose my decision," she said in March. "But I have learned that the death penalty traps many victims, families in a decades-long cycle of uncertainty, court hearings, appeals and waiting."
    Civil rights groups applauded her decision. The stance is significant because Orange County is one of four in the state's 67 counties to produce more than five executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
    Victims' families and Orlando Police Chief John Mina came out against Ayala's decision, calling on her to recuse herself from the Lloyd case. Ultimately, Scott removed her from the case.
    Capital punishment was in limbo in Florida for a brief period. The US Supreme Court ruled in January 2016 that the state's death penalty process was unconstitutional because it let judges have the final say, even when the jury's decision was not unanimous.
    The governor signed a bill into law in March abolishing nonunanimous jury recommendations for death and requiring unanimous jury recommendations before the trial judge may impose a death sentence.
    Ayala's decision to not consider capital punishment regardless of the individual facts and circumstances "raise(s) grave concerns" about her willingness "to abide and uphold" state laws, the executive order signed Monday reads. "The end of justice will be best served by the assignment of another state attorney."
    Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi supported the decision.
    "I would like to commend Gov. Rick Scott for his swift action for not only protecting citizens of Orlando but standing up for all crime victims and their families."