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Death Penalty Debate Heads To Florida's Supreme Court


If a state prosecutor says she opposes capital punishment, is it legal for the governor of that state to take cases away from her? That was the central question in front of Florida's Supreme Court today. Renata Sago from member station WMFE reports.

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: At the center of this dispute is Republican Governor Rick Scott's decision to take cases away from a Democratic state attorney from Orlando, Aramis Ayala, and reassign them to another prosecutor. Ayala attorney Roy Austin said the move was unprecedented.


ROY AUSTIN: Governor Rick Scott knows - and just as he told repeatedly citizens of the state of Florida - he does not have the authorization to override the prosecutorial discretion of an elected state attorney.

SAGO: In March, Ayala said she would not seek capital punishment in the case of a man accused of killing a police officer and his pregnant ex-girlfriend. After she did, Governor Scott reassigned two dozen of her murder cases to another state attorney. Austin told the justices that was wrong - one elected official taking power away from another.


AUSTIN: What he has done here is he has simply decided he's taking a case away. And what he has written is that he can do whatever he wants to do it.

SAGO: But Florida Solicitor General Amit Agarwal, who's representing the governor, said Scott's move was to protect justice.


AMIT AGARWAL: No one individual in our society has the right to say, I've taken a hard look at this. I've considered all the available evidence. I've figured out this issue, and I'm going to make a policy judgment that is blanket across the board.

SAGO: After court today, Ayala told reporters there's no law in Florida that requires her to seek the death penalty in capital cases.


ARAMIS AYALA: There was no blueprint for me to follow. I did what I believed was proper under Florida law, and no laws have been violated.

SAGO: At times during the court hearing, justices were skeptical whether a prosecutor could oppose state laws universally or on a case-by-case basis. Whatever the Florida Supreme Court decides, it could set a precedent for sweeping changes across the state. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renata joined the WVIK News team in March 2014, as the Amy Helpenstell Foundation Fellow. She anchors during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, produces features, and reports on everything from same-sex marriage legislation to unemployment in the Quad Cities.

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