Aramis Ayala, state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

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Prosecutor Aramis Ayala said she wouldn't seek the death penalty in alleged cop killer case

She sued the governor over whether he has authority to reassign her cases

CNN  — 

In a bizarre case of a state attorney suing a governor, lawyers for prosecutor Aramis Ayala and Florida Gov. Rick Scott argued Wednesday about whether Scott was justified in removing Ayala from cases in which she would not seek the death penalty.

While no decision was reached, Florida Supreme Court judges heard both sides in the debate about an elected prosecutor’s discretion in trying cases vs. a governor’s role in considering how “justice would be best served.”

“What this court has repeatedly said is the absolute discretion of prosecutors to determine whether and how to prosecute cases,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., the attorney representing Ayala.

“There is nothing in the law that requires State Attorney Ayala or any state attorney to seek the death penalty.”

But Amit Agarwal, the lawyer representing Scott, said Ayala shouldn’t make a blanket policy against the death penalty.

“We’re not arguing that state law requires prosecutors to seek the death penalty,” Agarwal said.

“Intelligent people of good will can and do disagree about the death penalty. But no one individual in our society has the right to say … ‘I’m going to make a policy judgment that is blanket across the board.’”

Ayala v. Scott

The debate started in March, when Ayala announced she wouldn’t seek the death penalty in the high-profile case of Markeith Loyd, a man accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend, gunning down an Orlando police officer and triggering a massive manhunt.

Nor would she pursue the death penalty in other cases in the 9th Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties in central Florida. Ayala had said evidence showed the death penalty is overly expensive, slow, inhumane and does not increase public safety.

Her decision drew praise from anti-death penalty groups such as the state’s ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Amnesty International USA. It also angered people in law enforcement and Scott.

Frustrated with Ayala’s position, the governor told her to recuse herself from the Loyd case. When she refused, he reassigned the case to another state attorney, who later filed notice seeking the death penalty.

“[Ayala] has made it clear that she will not fight for justice,” Scott said in a statement in March. He also stripped her office of nearly two dozen first-degree murder cases.

Ayala sued, challenging his decision to reassign more than 20 homicide cases to another prosecutor.

Ayala’s lawsuit says the governor “has no power to remove her for exercising her prosecutorial discretion.”

Ayala argues that state law gives her “absolute” discretion in deciding whether and how to prosecute cases. Her lawsuit said Scott’s reassignment “for political reasons” was “illegal, unfair, and disruptive.” She wants the court to nullify Scott’s orders and to redirect the cases the governor removed from her.

A joint response filed in April by Scott and state Attorney General Pam Bondi called Ayala’s arguments “simply wrong” and defended the reassignments as legal.

They stated that Ayala’s declaration to not seek the death penalty “does not involve a traditional exercise in prosecutorial discretion.”

“Instead, it announces an across-the-board determination not to exercise discretion – that is, a commitment not to undertake a case-specific analysis to determine whether any particular set of facts and circumstances calls for application of a legislatively authorized punishment. Her decision ultimately reflects her personal beliefs rather than the law of this state.”

The prosecutor behind the controversy

Before Ayala became a public official locked in a court battle with the governor, she had worked in both the state attorney’s office and in the public defender’s office.

She had been an assistant state attorney in the homicide and major crimes unit in Orlando before deciding to run for state attorney last year. She ran on the slogan “Experience you can trust.”

“The state attorney is one of the gatekeepers to our justice system,” she had asserted during her campaign.

In the primaries, she upset her former boss, Jeff Ashton, who had gained fame in the Casey Anthony trial, and went on to win in November.

While running for office, she spoke about her husband’s prior criminal history, saying his experiences had helped shape her views on the justice system, reported the Orlando Sentinel. Before the two met, David Ayala spent time in prison on drug conspiracy and counterfeiting charges, the newspaper reported, citing a statement on her website.

Her campaign website now redirects to the prosecutor’s office site.

Ayala graduated from the University of Michigan and received her law degree at the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law.

The case that led to a clash with Scott

The showdown between Scott and Ayala sparked over the prosecutor’s handling of the Loyd case.

Loyd had been on the run since the December 13 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, 24.

On January 9, Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton received word that Loyd was near the Walmart and tried to confront him. She was shot and killed. There was another death when Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy 1st Class Norman Lewis died in a crash while searching for Loyd on the day of Clayton’s death.

Loyd was captured on January 17 and indicted about a month later.

Ayala said she decided to seek life without parole in Loyd’s case after researching the law and the case. She said she also met with victims’ families, reviewed files from other cases and spoke with other individuals involved in the criminal justice system, according to her lawsuit.

Her lawsuit states “she had not uniformly ruled out seeking the death penalty,” but that the benefits of seeking a life sentence without parole would “outweigh the benefits of seeking the death penalty in virtually all cases.”

Ayala said in March that the capital punishment in Florida had led to “chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil.”

Capital punishment was recently in limbo in Florida for a brief period.

The US Supreme Court ruled in January 2016 that Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional because it let judges have the final say, even when a jury’s decision was not unanimous.

The governor signed a bill into law in March abolishing non-unanimous jury recommendations for death and requiring unanimous jury recommendations before a trial judge may impose a death sentence.

CNN’s Holly Yan, Tina Burnside and Darran Simon contributed to this report.