The Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for a death row inmate on Thursday and Gov. Rick Scott immediately took the case away from an Orlando prosecutor who is opposed to the death penalty.
The Florida Supreme Court ordered the new hearing for Bessman Okafor because the sentence handed out in 2015 came after an 11-1 jury recommendation, and the court now requires unanimous jury votes to allow the death penalty. That handed the case back to State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who has said she won't seek the death penalty in cases she prosecutes.
Shortly after the ruling was issued, Scott issued an executive order handing the case to State Attorney Brad King, who serves a neighboring judicial district.
Ayala was elected last year and wasn't involved in the prosecution and sentencing of Okafor. He was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Alex Zaldivar, who was scheduled to testify against him in a home invasion robbery trial. Two other witnesses were shot in the head, but survived.
Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Orlando also wanted the case removed from Ayala and wrote to Scott urging the action.
Cortes said in an interview that prosecutors should consider the wishes of the victims' families in deciding whether to seek the death penalty. He said he spoke to Zaldivar's father, Rafael, and was told the family wants Okafor executed.
"He's willing to go through this again in hopes of seeking justice for his son," Cortes said. "(Ayala) continues to make the statement that she's against the death penalty and will not seek it, which is I believe a dereliction of duty."
Scott has already removed Ayala from any ongoing murder cases where the death penalty can be applied. Ayala is challenging his action and the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in the dispute June 28.
Ayala said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman that she was pleased Okafor's conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, which has ordered new sentence hearings in dozens of death penalty cases since last fall because jury recommendations were not unanimous.
"I am not surprised by the Florida Supreme Court's ruling nor the governors' hasty reaction," Ayala said.