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Rick Scott says decisions related to Aramis Ayala ‘nothing to do with politics’

In Jacksonville Tuesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott discussed his ongoing war with State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

In March, Scott took the Markeith Loyd murder case away from Ayala, due to her reluctance to pursue the death penalty for the cop killer.

In April, Scott scored another pre-emptive strike: reassigning 21 first-degree murder cases that “represent a horrific loss of life.”

“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 stated Monday.

While those are salient points, there is also a counternarrative emerging from some quarters: namely, that Scott, being hit from the right by the Richard Corcoran wing of the Florida Republican Party, is taking such an aggressive position to shore up his base.

Meanwhile, there is also the question of subverting the mandate of the people who voted Ayala in last year.

When asked these questions, Scott had the following response.

“First off, this has nothing to do with politics. It has all to do with — think about the victims. This was about three weeks ago now when the State Attorney in Orlando said that she wouldn’t pursue the Markeith Loyd case to the fullest extent of the law. It just personally bothered me,” Scott related.

“Loyd’s accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend. He’s accused of shooting Officer Debra Clayton, a wonderful young lady, and then walking up to her when she’s on the ground, when he could have just driven off, and shooting her multiple times,” Scott added.

“And then the State Attorney says that she’s not going to pursue the case to the fullest extent of the law — that’s wrong,” Scott continued.

“What bothers me is that’s her job. Think about the victims: these are horrendous crimes. Think about the families: how do they feel when somebody says ‘I’m not going to prosecute somebody to the fullest extent of the law’.”

“We sent to Brad King, but there’s no politics in this. This is — what’s the right thing to do,” Scott said.

We asked Scott the question: is it death penalty or nothing for Loyd?

“Brad King will pursue the case to the fullest extent of the law. Whatever happens — you don’t just say you’re not going to pursue things to the fullest extent of the law. It’s the law of the state! Follow the law!”

Scott continued describing Loyd’s murder of Clayton, including using the phrase “pummeling her with bullets.”

We then asked Scott about the concept that the State Attorney has discretion to pursue charges as she sees fit — including not pursuing capital punishment.

“No, they have — it goes to Brad King, and he’ll review it and make the right decision.”

Randolph Bracy comes to Aramis Ayala’s defense with NY Times op-ed

Democratic state Senator Randolph Bracy has published a national defense of Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala Tuesday with an op-ed column in the New York Times contending Gov. Rick Scott has overreached in removing cases from her.

In the column headlined “Florida’s Vengeful Governor,” Bracy argues that Scott’s reassignment of 22 death penalty cases from Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, prosecuted by Ayala, to Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit, prosecuted by State Attorney Brad King, is without precedent or any legal foundation.

Scott did so because Ayala announced that she had concluded that Florida’s death penalty is not just for anyone and she would not pursue it in any cases. Last month Scott used an executive order to reassign the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. On Monday he used 21 more executive orders to reassign the cases of 21 others.

Bracy called Scott’s actions “retaliation.”

“They are meant to punish the state attorney, Aramis D. Ayala, Florida’s first black elected prosecutor, for announcing she would no longer seek the death penalty because it was not in the best interest of her jurisdiction, which stretches from Orlando to Kissimmee,” Bracy wrote.

“Ms. Ayala rightly argued that capital punishment does not deter crime, nor does it protect police officers. Instead, it often leads to protracted appeals, and rarely delivers closure to the victim’s family,” he continued.

Bracy argued that Ayala is well within her rights and duties as a state attorney to make that decision and set that policy.

“Although Ms. Ayala’s critics have denounced her actions as dereliction of duty, they cannot point to a single law or statute that she has violated. That’s because she hasn’t,” Bracy writes. “There are no federal or state laws that say prosecutors must seek death sentences. And the United States Supreme Court has banned all state laws that make executions mandatory for murders.”

Although Ayala has received broad support from various Democratic, Civil Rights, religious, legal, and anti-death penalty groups, Bracy has been one of the few elected officials who has aggressively defended her.

Bracy concedes in the column that he might not share Ayala’s view on the death penalty, but he respects her rights and duties of prosecutorial discretion and the fact that she is an independent elected official placed in office by voters.

He also noted the racial history of the death penalty and his own effort, through a bill, to address equal justice concerns.

“As a black man, I see the death penalty as a powerful symbol of injustice in which race often determines who lives and who dies, especially in Florida,” Bracy wrote. “The state has the second-largest number of death row inmates in the country, after California, and African-Americans are grossly overrepresented on Florida’s death row. This disproportionality was a driving force behind my bill. And while I felt that Florida was not ready to relinquish the death penalty, I tried to make it more fair.”

Rick Scott strips 21 more murder cases from Aramis Ayala’s jurisdiction

Gov. Rick Scott has stripped 21 more first-degree murder cases from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and reassigned them to Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King to prosecute.

In 21 new executive orders decrying Ayala’s announced policy to not pursue the death penalty in any cases in her 9th Judicial Circuit, Scott declared his “grave concerns regarding her willingness to abide by and uphold the uniform application of laws in the state of Florida.”

“The ends of justice will be best served by the assignment of another state attorney,” Scott’s orders declare.

The reassignments follow Scott’s action last month stripping the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd from her and reassigning it to King. Ayala has disputed the governor’s authority to do so and has vowed to challenge that action in court.

Ayala’s office replied with this statement:

“State Attorney Ayala became aware of the Governors reassignment of 21 cases this afternoon after the Governor released it to media outlets.

“There was never official notification from his office.

“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.”

King is state attorney for the neighboring Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

The move drew swift response from one Democrat, state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa, who released the following statement:

“Regardless of your opinion of the death penalty, today’s decision by Governor Scott to reassign twenty-one first degree murder cases away from State Attorney Aramis Ayala is a gross abuse of his power and authority as the state’s chief executive.

“State Attorney Ayala was duly elected by the voters of the Ninth Judicial Circuit and her right to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the interest of justice is not up for debate.”

Six of the new cases are pending in the 9th Judicial Circuit Court. The other 15 cases involved inmates who already were convicted, but whose death penalties were overturned in the Florida Supreme Court decision in the Hurst vs. Florida case. Those cases are being remanded back for new trials.

And so, Scott stripped the current cases of Darell Avant, DeMorris Andy Hunter, David Lewis Payne, Larry Perry, Juan Rosario, and Sanel Saint-Simon, for whom Ayala’s predecessors, either Jeff Ashton or Lawson Lamar, had sought the death penalty.

He also stripped the remanded cases of Dolan Darling, Steven Maurice Evans, David Sylvester Francis, Thomas Lee Gudinas, Sean S. Huggans, Sonny Ray Jeffries, Jermaine Lebron, Derrick McLean, Lionel Michael Miller, Robert Ira Peede, Theodore Rodgers Jr., Henry Perry Sireci Jr., Dusty Ray Spencer, William Melvin White, and Todd A. Zommer.

Legislature to consider cuts to Aramis Ayala’s office — deeper or angrier

The Florida Legislature may be negotiating how to cut funding to the office of 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala — and ironically the less-controversial potential cut to her budget is the bigger of two now moving through committees.

That sorting may begin this week when the House and Senate appropriations committees begin their close looks at the pieces the state budget proposals coming in from their various subcommittees.

State Rep. Scott Plakon, the Altamonte Springs Republican who has been extremely critical of Ayala since she announced her no-death-penalty stance. And when he engineered the line-item, $1.3 million budget cut that wound up included in the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee he made it clear the cut was a result of that stance.

“She’s not prosecuting death penalty cases, so this is essentially the money to be used for death penalty cases,” Plakon said.

Democrats and Ayala’s office have blasted that cut and charged that the Orange County Republican members of that subcommittee — Eric Eisnaugle, Rene Plasencia and Jennifer Sullivan — are putting their own constituents at public safety risk by slashing money for prosecuting criminals.

“The impact of cutting 1.3 million dollars and eliminating 21 positions would severely impact this agency’s ability to effectively prosecute crimes,” Ayala declared in a public statement.

Toward the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice’s budget proposal, there has been very little public criticism. Yet that cut is about $160,000 deeper than Plakon’s plan, at $1.46 million shaved from her budget.

The lack of criticism might start because state Sen. Aaron Bean, chairman of that committee, has made no public criticisms of Ayala and made no overt connections between the cut he is proposing and the state attorney’s position on capital punishment. Instead, Bean, a Jacksonville attorney, characterized his proposed cut as eliminating two programs that were first funded only this year, and which he thinks can’t continue under tight budget restraints now facing the state.

Those two programs, funding for domestic violence and human trafficking, are two programs Ayala cares about a great deal. She campaigned in part on the need for improved prosecution of domestic violence cases.

State Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland has promised to try to get the Senate cut removed from the budget.

Either cut is assumed to eliminate 21 positions, and reduce the 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office budget and staffing back to roughly 2015-16 levels. This year, adding domestic violence and human trafficking prosecution earmarks, the office got $29.4 million, good for 385 employees. Last year the office got $28 million, good for 364 positions.

Brightline railroad wins key court decision for environmental permit

The company planning the Brightline passenger train service has won a key State Administrative Court decision in a case that was holding up an environmental permit needed for the West Palm Beach to Orlando leg of the train line.

On Thursday Administrative Judge Bram Canter sided with Brightline and the St. Johns River Water Management District, in a dispute in which another water authority was charging that the railroad’s proposed bridges were too low over canals.

Canter disagreed with the petition from the Indian River Farms Water Control District in Indian River County. That frees up the Environmental Resource Permit Brightline needs to build the bridges in Indian River County. Without the permit the company could not move forward, and its limbo state since Indian River Farms WCD challenged it last fall was one of key factors preventing Brightline from being able to move foreword seeking $1.1 billion in financing it needs for the project.

Brightline, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, intends to open up a privately-owned and -operated passenger service train this year connecting West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Its next phase is to upgrade and double-track a route from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport, to accommodate passenger trains that can go 110-mph up the coast, and 120 mph heading inland to Orlando.

But that plan requires the environmental permits to build new bridges over numerous canals and other water bodies.

Thursday’s victory is only one of two Brightline needs. It still faces a petition challenging another permit it needed for projects farther south along the route. Martin and St. Lucie Counties are fighting to invalidate Brightline’s environmental permit from the South Florida Water Management District.

Still, Brightline hailed Thursday’s victory in a statement.

“This ruling is further demonstration that Brightline is adhering to all regulations for the construction of its system,” Myles Tobin, General Counsel for Brightline stated in that release. “As Treasure Coast taxpayers continue to spend millions on legal challenges fighting Brightline, we continue to invest more than $1.3 billion to connect the state’s most populated centers, creating jobs and spurring economic opportunities. We are planning for Phase 2 while preparing to launch the South Florida service in several months.”

Indian River Farms WCD had contended that its engineers had determined the bridges would be too low, putting them within the 100-year flood plain, and creating a obstruction problem that could cause drainage problems in the canals. Yet Brightline’s plans for double-tracking the route include building new bridges identical in height to the old ones they would join. And the St. Johns River WMD convinced the judge that height was not in the 100-year flood plain.

David Smith earns endorsement from Bob Dallari in HD 28 race

House District 28 Republican candidate David Smith picked up an early endorsement in the 2018 cycle from Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, his campaign announced Thursday.

“Colonel David Smith is a proven leader,” said Dallari. “He is a committed conservative with a passion for service to his country and community. David’s storied military background, business experience and deep roots in Central Florida make him highly qualified to represent our community in the Florida House of Representatives. He shares our traditional values and I’m proud to give my personal endorsement and full support to his campaign for House District 28.”

Smith said he was “honored to have the early support of a suburb public servant like Commissioner Dallari,” adding that he and Dallari “are both committed to bringing high quality jobs to Seminole County.”

Smith, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, is currently the only Republican running for the District 28 seat currently held by Republican Rep. Jason Brodeur, who terms out in 2018.

Smith has lived in Florida since 1972 and has worked in the modeling, simulation and training industry since retiring from active duty.

In addition to being an active member of the Central Florida Veterans community, Smith is part of the Winter Springs Rotary Club, Seminole County Regional Chamber of Commerce and CrossLife Church. He is also a member of the Seminole County Republican Executive Committee.

The district, which covers part of Seminole County, leans toward Republicans with 44,000 registered GOP voters compared to 37,000 registered Democrats.

Brodeur beat his Democratic opponent in 2012 with 66 percent vote, followed by a 68-32 drubbing in 2014. In 2016, he beat Libertarian Steve Edmonds with 64 percent of the vote.

So far, the only other candidate filed to take over for Brodeur is Democrat Devin Perez, who filed for the seat in February and has so far raised $300.

Smith, who filed at the tail end of last month, kicked off his campaign with a $25,000 loan.

Democrat Debra Kaplan files to run for House District 31

Business consultant Debra Kaplan of Eustis has filed as a Democrat to run for Florida’s House District 31, to take on Republican state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan.

Kaplan, 64, is a former cable-TV Emmy-award-winning political reporter in Connecticut, and Apopka, and former public relations agent, who said she strove to remain politically independent until recently, and then worked on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns.

She calls herself a political moderate on most issues due to her life experience, yet an avowed feminist.

“I’ve worked in the fields. I’ve worked in factories. I’ve worked in the dietary department of a hospital, pushing trays. I’ve waitressed. I’ve done backbreaking work. And I’ve been a journalist and public relations person and a promotions person,” she said. “I know what it’s like to sit around a kitchen table with a pile of bills when you’re not making a lot of money and trying to make things work. I understand what that feels like.

“I think that makes me understand the challenges of the people of this region, whether they are Democrats, independents or Republicans,” she said.

HD 31, which covers northeast Lake County and northwest Orange County, has a strong Republican base, though it is trending toward more independent voters, in part due to a growing Hispanic population. Sullivan is a two-term incumbent first elected with tea party backing, and then re-elected without a Democratic opponent last fall.

Kaplan, who has lived in the region since 1992, made the rounds of Democratic leaders in Lake and Orange counties, and said she’s lining up people she knew from the Clinton campaigns and met more recently to volunteer for and contribute to her campaign.

At least initially, she expects to stress elder-care, water, education, infrastructure and rights-restoration issues in her campaign.

“I see the possibility in this region. It’s growing. It needs an advocate because we’re often the stepchild of Orlando and other larger communities. We now need someone who will fight for infrastructure, the integrity of our water,” she said.

SpaceX launches used rocket from Kennedy Space Center

In an effort that could greatly reduce the cost and turnaround time of launching rockets, SpaceX successfully launched a used rocket Thursday evening from Kennedy Space Center.

The Falcon 9 rocket – with a previously launched, recovered, and refurbished first stage – blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at 6:27 p.m., and successfully lifted the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit

Eight minutes later, SpaceX brought the rocket stage back to Earth again, landing it on the company’s landing barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

Moments after the landing, an obviously-elated SpaceX founder Elon Musk hailed at as a big day for the space industry, “proving that something that can be done that many people said was impossible.”

“We just had an incredible day today. The first preflight of an orbital class booster, did its mission perfectly, dropped off the second stage, came back and landed on the drone ship, right on the bullseye,” Musk said in an interview live-streamed over the SpaceX website. “It’s an amazing day I think for space as a whole, for the space industry.

“It means you can fly and re-fly and orbit class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” Musk continued. “This is going to be obviously a huge revolution in space flight. It’s the difference between where, if you had airplanes, you threw away the airplane after every flight, versus you can reuse them multiple times.”

“It’s been 15 years to get to this point. It’s taken a long time. An awful lot of difficult steps along the way,” he added.

It’s particularly a big day for SpaceX, already the world’s most affordable and fastest-turnaround rocket company for orbital launches, now on its way to cutting those costs even more. SpaceX officials said a typical launch costs $62 million, but that only about 4 percent of that figure, about $300,000, is for the fuel. That means most of the rest of the cost is in the actual vehicle, which, if reused multiple times, can bring the launch costs down.

There have been no reports if the Luxembourg-based SES Corp. got a big discount on this launch, testing the reused rocket. SES officials preferred the words “flight-proven” to used.

SpaceX used – er, ‘flight-tested’ – rocket set to launch

SpaceX is set to launch a recycled Falcon 9 rocket Thursday afternoon, marking the first time a rocket used once to put a spacecraft into orbit has been landed, refurbished and put on the launch pad to be used again.

SpaceX’s first customer for such a rocket, the Luxembourg-based SES satellite company, prefers the term “flight-tested” to the word used.

The Falcon 9 rocket with the SES-10 communications satellite is set to launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, with a launch window that opens at 6:27 p.m. and running through 8:30 p.m.

The U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron is calling for an 80 percent chance of favorable weather for a launch, which will go down to 40 percent, because of storm systems drifting in from Texas, if it has to be bumped until Friday. On Thursday, winds and thick layer clouds ahead of the storm system are the concerns.

“SES-10 is the first satellite to be launched aboard a flight-proven rocket, a significant milestone in the direction of shrinking the time it takes from satellite design to launch, allowing the satellite industry to be more agile to meet the insatiable demand for connectivity everywhere,” SES said in a press release. “Positioned at 67 degrees West, SES-10 will enable the delivery of new video and connectivity services across Latin America.”

SpaceX touts the launch as a breakthrough in the commercial rocket business, that can lower per-launch costs.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk stated on the company’s website.

Thursday’s launch will not reuse an entire rocket, just the first stage.

And technically it will not be a first. SpaceX rival Blue Origin already has reused a first stage from its New Shepard rocket, though that did not reach orbit, and did not carry a payload, as the Falcon 9 is doing.

Aramis Ayala slams proposed budget cuts as threatening public safety in Central Florida

Orlando’s embattled state Attorney Aramis Ayala accused the Florida Legislature of threatening the public safety and economic health of Central Florida by proposing budget cuts of at least $1.3 million to her office.

The Florida House Judicial Appropriations Subcommittee unveiled a budget Tuesday that would cut that much from the Office of the State Attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit. State Rep. Scott Plakon, an Altamonte Springs Republican who engineered that cut, has openly acknowledged the move as a response to Ayala’s controversial decision to not prosecute death penalties in the district.

Also on Tuesday the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice unveiled a budget that would cut $1.4 million from her office budget. However, that cut was characterized as rolling back two programs that were first funded last year, and made no mention of Ayala’s stand on the death penalty.

Both house’s budget proposals would essentially eliminate 21 staff positions in Ayala’s office.

Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland, vice chair of the Senate justice appropriations subcommittee, made no public comments during either Tuesday’s meeting when Chair Aaron Bean, a Jacksonville Republican, unveiled his proposal, nor on Wednesday when Bean’s committee met briefly to discuss the proposal.

However Bracy expressed his displeasure and said he intends to address it when the budget reaches the full Senate Appropriations Committee, where he has a seat.

“I’m going to propose an amendment in the next committee to restore that funding,” Bracy said.

At least for now, the proposed cuts are the status. Ayala, a Democrat, issued a statement through her office Tuesday saying they would hurt her office’s ability to prosecute criminals, and urging solidarity for public safety in the counties it covers, Orange and Osceola.

“Of all the cases this office handles, less than .01 percent are death penalty cases.  The other 99.99 percent include non-capital homicides, sexual batteries, sex crimes against children, domestic violence, drug and human trafficking, carjackings, robberies, burglaries, DUI’s, thefts, aggravated assaults, batteries and other violent and non-violent crimes,” Ayala stated.

“The impact of cutting $1.3 million and eliminating 21 positions would severely impact this agency’s ability to effectively prosecute crimes, threaten public safety and ultimately have an economic impact on the central Florida community,” she continued.

Plakon, one of the harshest critics of her stance on the death penalty, argued that while the circuit might receive very few death penalty cases, each one is enormously expensive to prosecute. He contended that if Ayala is not going to prosecute any, then money should be removed from her budget and given to other state attorneys who will, who could use the extra money for that purpose.

The house budget explicitly calls for that, making $1.3 million deleted from the 9th JC State Attorney’s Office available to others, “as necessary to cover additional costs associate [sic] with reassigned death penalty cases.”

That would start with the office of 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King, who was assigned to handle the Markeith Loyd murder trial out of Orange County after Gov. Rick Scott stripped that case from Ayala two weeks ago.

Plakon said he does not believe the cut would impact Ayala’s ability to prosecute other crimes.

“She’s not prosecuting death penalty cases, so this is essentially the money to be used for death penalty cases, so that’s a ridiculous argument,” Plakon said.

When asked about one of her justifications for not pursuing the death penalty, that the cases are so expensive that she could divert money to the prosecution of other crimes, Plakon replied, “The bottom line is her dereliction of her responsibilities, and there is a cost to that.”

Plakon was away on business Tuesday and did not actually attend the House subcommittee meeting where his recommendation was revealed in the proposed budget. However, three other Central Florida state representatives were, Vice Chair Eric Eisnaugle of Windermere, Mike Miller of Winter Park, and Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora, all Republicans.

The Orange County Democratic Party blasted them Wednesday, charging they put their own constituents at risk by not objecting to cuts in their own district’s prosecution money. The Orange Democrats did not comment on Bracy’s silence during the Senate subcommittee meetings.

Orange Democratic Chairman Wes Hodge called the concurrence of Eisnaugle, Miller and Sullivan, “a show of utter weakness.”

“By cutting 20-plus attorneys from the ninth circuit’s office, the speed of justice will slow to a crawl,” Hodge contended in a statement issued by the county party. “Fewer attorneys prosecuting criminals put more cases at risk of being dismissed due to violations of the Constitutional right to a speedy trial. The end result of this ideological action will allow criminals to evade prosecution, and our community will be less safe thanks to these three Republicans.”

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