Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s move to replace a prosecutor who refused to seek the death penalty for an alleged cop killer has brought into sharp relief a nationwide shift away from capital punishment, the Wall Street Journal reports. Aramis Ayala, newly elected state attorney in Orlando, said she wouldn’t push for executions because of what she says are shortcomings in the criminal-justice system. Scott assigned the case to another prosecutor, prompting Ayala to argue that the governor doesn’t have the authority to remove her. The dispute has attracted attention at a time when the number of death penalties imposed has dwindled from a peak of 315 in 1996 to 30 last year. Ayala is the first African-American elected prosecutor in a Southern, tough-on-crime state with 381 people on death row, second behind California.
“You have a new prosecutor in a county with a history of aggressively using the death penalty saying this doesn’t work as a policy, at the same time the rest of the country is backing off from capital punishment and there is a hardening of support among proponents,” said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, which criticizes the way executions are administered. The 20 executions in five states last year were the fewest nationwide since 1991, amid a dwindling supply of lethal-injection drugs and mounting concerns over the cost of executions and potential racial bias. New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland have all outlawed capital punishment in the past eight years, leaving 31 states with death rows. In Florida, Delaware and Alabama, the death penalty is entangled in legal battles because judges, not juries, have imposed capital punishment. Courts have ruled the Florida and Delaware laws unconstitutional, though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider challenges to Alabama’s system.