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Rick Scott demands prosecutor step down over refusal to seek death penalty

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@MichaelAuslen

Gov. Rick Scott is calling on the state attorney in Orlando to recuse herself from prosecutting a high-profile accused cop killer after she announced Thursday she would not seek the death penalty.

Just days after a new state law went into effect allowing prosecutors to once again pursue death sentences, State Attorney Aramis Ayala said she did not believe it was an effective deterrent and that it causes too much pain for victims' families. She declared she would not seek death sentences in her judicial circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties.

"I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice," she said, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

That includes the case of Markeith Loyd, accused of gunning down Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton, who was trying to capture Loyd on Jan. 9, more than a week after he allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon.

Amid calls from state lawmakers that the governor remove Ayala from the case or suspend her from office, Scott called for her to voluntarily step aside. He has not taken any formal action.

"I completely disagree with State Attorney Ayala’s decision and comments and I am asking her to recuse herself immediately from this case," Scott said in a statement. "She has made it abundantly clear that she will not fight for justice for Lt. Debra Clayton and our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day."

Attorney General Pam Bondi said the decision not to seek the death penalty sets a bad precedent.

"State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s decision today sends a dangerous message to residents and visitors of the greater Orlando area—furthermore, it is a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer," Bondi said.

In the Capitol, Republican lawmakers gathered Thursday moorning to condemn Ayala, who in November became the first African-American elected state attorney in the state of Florida.

They demanded Scott take action against her, calling her "lawless" and her decision "apalling."

“Today, I’d like to call on Gov. Scott to suspend her for this blanket refusal to use the tools that the Legislature, and signed by the governor, has given her to protect the most innocent among us and to punish these criminals that do these terrible acts," said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood.

There is no recourse for the Legislature to remove state attorneys from office. However, legislation moving through the political process in Tallahassee would give lawmakers the right to impeach state attorneys who violate the law.

State law gives state attorneys broad discretion to determine how best to pursue each case, including whether or not to seek the death penalty. But Plakon and Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, said they believe Ayala violated the public trust and the spirit of the state's criminal laws by not seeking to have an accused cop killer put to death.

Last week, the Legislature passed a key fix to the state's death penalty (SB 280), which hahd been in limbo. It requires juries to vote unanimously in favor of a death sentence, upping the standard from a 10-2 majority. After Scott signed it into law Monday, it gave prosecutors across the state the green light to pursue new death cases.

Photo: State Reps. Rene Plasencia, R-Titusville, Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, and Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, call on Gov. Rick Scott to suspend State Attorney Aramis Ayala over her refusal to seek the death penalty Thursday in the state Capitol. (Michael Auslen | Times/Herald)

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