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Florida governor replaces anti-death penalty prosecutor

Reuters

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott on Thursday replaced a local prosecutor who declared she would not seek the death penalty in a case against a man accused of killing an Orlando police officer and refused to recuse herself.

In an executive order, Scott removed State Attorney Aramis Ayala, the elected prosecutor in central Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit, and reassigned the murder case to State Attorney Brad King of the nearby Fifth Judicial Circuit.

Ayala, at a news conference earlier on Thursday, said Florida's death penalty system was the cause of "legal chaos" and said she would not seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, charged in the Jan. 9 shooting of the policewoman. He was arrested after an intensive manhunt that drew widespread attention.

The statement by Ayala, who took office early this year, outraged law enforcement groups, some state lawmakers and State Attorney General Pam Bondi. But several groups, including Amnesty International USA and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, rose to her defense.

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"She has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case to State Attorney Brad King," Scott said in a statement.

After a discussion with Scott on Thursday afternoon, Ayala issued a statement saying she offered to have "a full conversation" about her decision, but he "declined to explore my reasoning."

"Upon receipt of any lawful order, my office will follow that order and fully cooperate to ensure the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd," she said.

Florida's governor signed legislation on Monday tightening state 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 twice last year after rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court in separate cases.

Loyd was arrested on Jan. 7 after a nine-day manhunt that followed the shooting death of Orlando police Master Sargent Debra Clayton. At the time, Loyd was already a suspect in the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, in December.

Florida prisons hold 382 people who have been sentenced to die. Some have been on death row since the 1970s because the process of appealing death penalty verdicts can take decades.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Richard Chang)