- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2017

A Florida prosecutor elected with $1 million from liberal billionaire George Soros has been removed from all first-degree murder cases after refusing to seek the death penalty for any suspect, including an accused cop killer.

State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who won an upset victory in November after receiving $1.38 million from the Soros-backed Florida Safety & Justice PAC, had 21 first-degree murder cases in Orange and Osceola counties reassigned Monday to other prosecutors by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.

His executive order came after she announced she would not seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, who has been charged in the murders of his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon in December and Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton in January, or any other defendants.

Another officer, Orange County sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis, died in a Jan. 9 car crash during the hunt for the 41-year-old Loyd.

“While I currently do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of this community or in the best interests of justice,” said Ms. Ayala, a Democrat, at her March 16 press conference.

Mr. Scott responded by reassigning the Loyd case to a prosecutor in another circuit. He said his decision this week to follow up by removing the 21 cases was made “in the interest of justice.”

“Each of these cases I am reassigning represents a horrific loss of life,” Mr. Scott said in a statement. “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.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Ayala has refused to back down, accusing the governor of abusing his power. Her attorney, Roy Austin, told WKMG-TV in Orlando that she plans to fight the governor’s order.

“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,” spokeswoman Eryka Washington said Monday in a statement to WFTV-TV in Orlando.

Ms. Ayala was one of at least 11 candidates for prosecutor in 2015 and 2016 who received generous contributions from a network of state Safety & Justice committees funded by Mr. Soros, a staunch opponent of the death penalty and supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nine of the 11 candidates, most of whom were black or Hispanic, in 10 states won their races thanks in part to hefty warchests that often dwarfed those of their opponents.

Her Soros funding became an issue during the campaign when her Democratic primary opponent, incumbent Jeff Ashton, accused her of trying to buy the office, while she denied being under the thumb of the liberal billionaire.

“I am not a puppet, never have been a puppet and there is no one pulling my strings. I made the independent decision to run for state attorney because I want the job,” Ms. Ayala told News13 in Orlando.

Tensions over her stance are running high. A Seminole County clerk’s office employee resigned last month after saying on Facebook that Ms. Ayala “should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.”

Meanwhile, GOP state Rep. Bob Cortes said he received a threat on Facebook from someone calling him a “traitor” and warning his family was “not safe” after he and several other Republican legislators called Wednesday on the governor to replace Ms. Ayala.

“Basically, they were in disagreement of what position I took, and they called me a traitor and that my family was in danger,” Mr. Cortes told WFTV-TV, adding that he had contacted law enforcement.

Among those in Ms. Ayala’s corner are the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, whose members held a press conference last month blasting Mr. Scott’s decision to pull the Loyd case “an unfettered and uninformed power grab.”

“Gov. Scott’s hasty response to State Attorney Ayala’s announcement set a dangerous precedent and is a slap in the face of the voters who carried her into office,” Democratic state Sen. Perry Thurston, chairman of the black caucus, said in the Tampa Times.

Ms. Ayala is the first elected black state attorney in Florida history, but there is no racial division in the Loyd case. The suspect is black, as were his girlfriend and the two officers who died.

In his Monday statement, Mr. Scott argued that the cases removed from Ms. Ayala’s office involved heinous aggravating circumstances, making them eligible for death-penalty consideration.

“Some of the victims include a teenager whose life was taken before he could bravely testify as a witness to a dangerous crime, a single mother who was abducted and killed as she called for help, and a young child whose life was brutally cut short,” Mr. Scott said. “I cannot imagine the pain their families endure each day and we will do all we can to aggressively fight for justice.”


• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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