With our government thwarting the will of the voters at every turn, we should all be alarmed by Florida Governor Rick Scott’s unprecedented use of executive power to strip a duly elected State’s Attorney of her authority. Aramis Ayala is Florida’s first black elected prosecutor and one of only a handful of female and/or black prosecutors nationwide. By stripping Ayala of her authority, Governor Scott has sent a loud and clear message politicizing prosecutions: if you don’t do things the way the Governor wants, you will face political retribution. Moreover, there is an implicit racial component to Scott’s actions—elected black policymakers best not undermine the will of their white boss.
Here’s what happened: Ayala announced that it is not in the best interest of the areas she serves (Orange and Oceola counties, including Orlando) for her to seek the death penalty. So, the Governor reassigned Ayala’s murder prosecutions to a prosecutor from neighboring counties. Thus, even though Ayala was duly elected and her election reflects the will of the people in her community, Governor Scott vetoed that vote by stripping her of her authority and giving it to a (white male) prosecutor whose politics better align with his own.
Even ignoring the power grab, Scott’s actions make no logical sense. Ayala’s opposition to the death penalty is a sensible position. There are so many flaws with the death penalty, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are a few of the obvious ones:
- The death penalty embodies the racism inherent in the justice system. Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center summarizes how studies show that race plays a role every step the way. Who we execute is affected by the race of the accused, the race of the victim, the race of the prosecutors and the racial makeup of the jury.
- Mistakes are made. We know from our exoneration rates that innocent people get convicted. A 2014 study found that over 4% of executions or death sentences likely involve the wrongfully accused.
- The death penalty is only used in a few places, so there is a bizarre and untenable difference of death sentences based on where people are charged.
- We haven’t figured out a humane way to kill people, and death sentences are often tortuous when carried out.
- As Ms. Ayala argues, the death penalty does not deter crime, protect police officers, or provide more closure to victims’ families. Instead, it typically leads to protracted appeals and costs taxpayers far more than a life without parole sentence would cost.
But arguments about the death penalty aside, Governor Scott’s power grab and slap down of a black elected official is deeply troubling. Prosecutors wield a tremendous amount of power and discretion. As our country attempts to tackle mass incarceration, we look to prosecutors to instill some element of fairness into the system. A prosecutor who must conform to a Governor’s political agenda cannot do that.
Lately, we’ve seen counties around the country seriously considering whom they want prosecuting cases for them, and with that deeper consideration we’ve seen more contested elections and more conversations about balanced charging. Stripping the power from an elected prosecutor for seeking to use her discretion is undemocratic and wrong. In this particilar instance, it is also seemingly racist. It is yet another example of our government circumventing the voters’ wishes to implement a callous and vengeful agenda.