The Florida Supreme Court has remanded another murder case death penalty from Orlando, that of Bessman Okafor, and Gov. Rick Scott quickly reassigned it away from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
The move came with swift intervention from state Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs, who asked the governor to keep the case from going back to Ayala, who has vowed to not prosecute death penalties. The governor concurred, reassigning it to neighboring State Attorney Brad King in the 5th Judicial Circuit, as he has done with 23 previous first-degree murder cases in the past three months.
“I am grateful,” said Cortes, a Republican who has been a stern critic of Ayala’s declaration and how she arrived at her decision.
Okafor’s murder conviction stands, according to the Supreme Court. The court threw out his death penalty and ordered another penalty phase trial.
He was convicted of murdering a witness who was expected to testify at Okafor’s upcoming armed robbery trial, and of trying to murder two others, who survived being shot, in 2012. However, during the penalty phase of his 2015 trial, the jury voted 11-1 to sentence Okafor to death. That was good enough for the legal standard of 2015, but that standard was thrown out in 2016, and Florida now requires a unanimous jury vote for a death sentence.
On Thursday the Supreme Court decided on the appeal of Okafor’s sentence, and sent it back to the 9th Judicial Circuit for a new sentencing phase.
Cortes then urged the governor to reassign it, declaring in a letter his “distrust that this case will not be given the attention it requires and deserves.” Scott then redirected it to King, using the same assertion he used for 23 other murder cases that have been diverted from Ayala.
“The unequivocal statements of State Attorney Aramis D. Ayala raise grave concerns regarding her silliness to abide by and uphold the uniform application of the laws of the state of Florida, and the ends of justice will be best served by the assignment of another state attorney to discharge the duties of State Attorney Aramis D. Ayala with respect to the investigation, prosecution, and all matters related to Bessman Okafor,” Scott wrote in his order.
Ayala expressed satisfaction that the court remanded the case, and no surprise at Scott’s executive order.
“I am very pleased that Bessman Okafor’s conviction for his horrific crimes was upheld today by the Supreme Court of Florida,” she said in a written statement. “Florida’s High Court was tasked with attempting to resolve the chaos surrounding Florida’s death penalty statute after being stricken down by the United States Supreme Court early last year. I am not surprised by the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling nor the Governors’ hasty reaction.”
That order, and Ayala’s authority to refuse the death penalty, will soon also be decided by the Florida Supreme Court.
Ayala filed in the Supreme Court in April to assert that she has full authority to refuse to prosecute death penalties under prosecutorial discretion, and that Scott does not have the authority to reassign cases from her just because he disagrees with her. Scott answered that Ayala overstepped her authority and her blanket refusal is a violation of her legal duties, and that he has the power to intervene when a state attorney is breaking the law.
The Supreme Court has received a dozen arguments from Ayala, Scott, and friends of the court, and has set oral arguments for June 28.