It’s a scene you’ve seen a hundred times.
The angry rabble advances on the jail, meaning to seize the prisoner and hang him from the nearest tree. The sheriff, a lone defender of the rule of law, stands them off, refusing to give in to the mob’s demand for extralegal justice.
Granted, no one is storming the Orange County, Florida, lockup where Markeith Loyd sits waiting for trial on charges of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer. But in at least one respect, what is happening in central Florida mirrors that movie cliche absolutely.
The mob wants blood. Somebody has told them No. And they are not happy about it.
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Chief among the unhappy is the governor, Rick Scott. In a stunning move, he recently removed State Attorney Aramis Ayala from the case after she announced she would not seek the death penalty against Loyd – or any other defendant.
It was an exercise of brute executive force alarming enough that last week nearly 140 legal professionals signed their names to a letter declaring themselves “deeply troubled” by it. Donna Coker of the University of Miami School of Law, Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Karl Racine, attorney general of Washington, D.C., and Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles County district attorney, are among those accusing the governor of an action that “infringes on the vitally important independence of prosecutors (and) exceeds your authority.”
Scott, they said, has set “a dangerous precedent. The governor picking and choosing how criminal cases are prosecuted, charged or handled in local matters is troubling as a matter of policy and practice.”
People will want to make this a referendum on the heinousness of Loyd’s alleged crime. It isn’t.
People will also want to make this a referendum on the death penalty. It isn’t that, either.
Ayala, yes, has a philosophical opposition to capital punishment. Many of us do. It is worth noting, though, that a number of her defenders support the death penalty and disagree with her decision. Yet they are still in her corner.
Because death is not the issue here. No, the issue is whether we shall have law or the mob.
The tenor of the latter may be inferred from a Facebook post by a Seminole County bureaucrat who wrote that Ayala “should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree” for her refusal. Stan McCullars, who later deleted that post, was placed on administrative leave and ultimately resigned. Given that Ayala is the first African-American state attorney in Florida history, his threat carries a terrible resonance.
It’s arguably more noteworthy, however, for what it says about the mind of the mob. They want – no, they demand – blood and they will not be denied. Which is human, maybe even understandable. But it’s also inimical to justice.
That’s why we construct the machinery of law, to temper and constrain the passions of the moment. We trade the visceral satisfaction of ripping the limbs off some accused child rapist for rules that protect us – particularly the wrongly accused among us – from just that sort of misguided rage.
Ayala is an elected official. If the voters dislike her decision, they have the means to hold her accountable for it. Instead, the governor imposes his office, supersedes her will and tramples upon the separation of powers.
Those who can’t see beyond their own fury are surely pleased. The rest of us can only be appalled.
The law exists to protect us from the mob. But that’s hard to do when the governor is leading it.