Florida governor takes prosecutor off murder cases for death penalty stance

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., April 3 (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott on Monday removed a prosecutor from 21 murder cases in the Orlando area because she has said she would not seek the death penalty during her tenure.

The Republican governor previously took Aramis Ayala, the elected prosecutor in central Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit, off the case of a man accused of killing an Orlando police officer after she refused to consider capital punishment.

Scott said he now was reassigning all 22 cases from Ayala, a Democrat whose district includes Orange and Osceola counties, to the state attorney in a nearby district "in the interest of justice."

"State Attorney Ayala's complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice," Scott said in a statement.

Ayala took office in January and has a four-year term.

Ayala's office issued a statement on Monday saying she remains steadfast in her position that Scott is "abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system."

Ayala last month cited "legal chaos" surrounding Florida's death penalty system as her reason for not pursuing the execution of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing an Orlando policewoman on Jan. 9, or anyone suspected in a homicide.

Ayala's announcement outraged law enforcement groups, some state lawmakers and State Attorney General Pam Bondi.

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Others rose in her defense. Last week, groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized a rally in the state capital of Tallahassee to show support for Ayala and prosecutorial independence.

Roy Austin, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney hired by Ayala to fight her removal from the Loyd case, said in a telephone interview on Monday that Scott's move is unprecedented in the United States.

Scott last month signed legislation tightening Florida law to require a unanimous recommendation by a jury before judges can impose the death penalty.

The law is the state's latest effort to restart its death penalty process, which was put on hold last year after rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court in separate cases.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)