Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida suspended the top state prosecutor in Orlando on Wednesday, accusing her of incompetence and neglect of duty for what he characterized as lenience against violent criminals. The move was the governor’s latest aggressive use of executive power against local officials of the opposing political party.
Mr. DeSantis suspended Monique H. Worrell, the elected state attorney of Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola Counties, and cited as reasons her handling of three cases and a low overall incarceration rate, among other things. One of the three cases involved a man who shot and injured two Orlando police officers over the weekend.
It is the second time in a year that Mr. DeSantis, a Republican running for president, has taken the drastic and exceedingly rare step of removing an elected state attorney. Both have been Democrats.
Mr. DeSantis’s presidential campaign, with its focus on cultural issues, has struggled to gain traction among likely Republican primary voters, who said in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll that they would be more likely to support a candidate “who focuses on restoring law and order” over one “who focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology.” Mr. DeSantis replaced his campaign manager on Tuesday.
The governor was heavily criticized in August 2022 when he removed Andrew H. Warren, the top prosecutor in Tampa, who had signed a statement along with 90 other elected prosecutors across the country vowing not to prosecute people who seek or provide abortions. Critics blasted the ouster as politically motivated. But Mr. Warren remains out of office — and Mr. DeSantis mentions his removal in just about every campaign speech.
Mr. DeSantis said on Wednesday that Ms. Worrell’s office had charged cases in ways that would avoid mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug trafficking crimes; allowed juveniles to avoid serious charges or incarceration; found ways to avoid seeking more serious sentences when they were available; limited charges for child pornography; and inappropriately allowed some offenders to avoid having a criminal conviction on their records.
“Prosecutors do have a certain amount of discretion about which cases to bring and which not,” Mr. DeSantis, a former federal and military prosecutor, said. “But what this state attorney has done is abuse that discretion and has effectively nullified certain laws in the state of Florida.”
The governor appointed Andrew A. Bain, a judge from the same judicial circuit, to take Ms. Worrell’s place. Ms. Worrell may appeal her suspension to the Republican-controlled State Senate, or try to get the Florida Supreme Court, where a majority of justices were appointed by Mr. DeSantis, to hear her case.
In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Worrell said she did not “expect justice out of the state of Florida” and would seek re-election to the post next year.
“Prosecutors everywhere are talking about attacks on prosecutorial discretion, because they have become a new political fodder for extremist Republicans who are trying to subvert democracy,” she said.
Ms. Worrell, who was elected in 2020 with 66 percent of the vote, was known to be in Mr. DeSantis’s sights. Earlier this year, his general counsel demanded information from her office on a case involving a 19-year-old man with a criminal record who was subsequently accused of killing three people, including a local journalist and a 9-year-old girl. The general counsel also sought details on cases involving people who had violated the terms of their probation by being arrested on criminal charges, or who had a prior criminal history and were not prosecuted.
In March, anticipating that she might be suspended, Ms. Worrell released data showing that her prosecution rate was similar to that of two of her predecessors.
Ms. Worrell and Mr. Warren are among the many progressive prosecutors who have been backed by groups supported by the liberal billionaire investor George Soros. Mr. DeSantis uses derisive mentions of Mr. Soros’s name to draw cheers as he campaigns for president.
Ms. Worrell is a former public defender and law professor who has supported the use of alternatives to incarceration, like restorative justice and diversion programs.
Of the three cases that Mr. DeSantis cited in his news conference, two involved offenders with prior records who went on to commit violent crimes. One was Daton Viel, a 28-year-old man killed by Orlando Police officers on Saturday after he had shot and critically injured two officers Friday night. Mr. Viel posted bond earlier this year after being charged with sexual battery of a 14-year-old girl. He was also on probation for a separate felony trespass conviction.
The other cases involved a man who shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend after having been released while facing charges including carrying a concealed firearm on school property, and a man who was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 51 weeks in jail as a youthful offender.
Ms. Worrell said some of the examples cited by the governor involved factors beyond her control, like sentences and bonds, which are set by judges who are free to overrule prosecutors’ recommendations.
And she said that much of the information that was used to build a case against her came from local law enforcement officials who oppose her because she has prosecuted police officers, including one who shot an unarmed person.
“My message has been consistently, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you like me or you hate me: Democracy is under attack,” she said. “Duly elected officials should not be removed by elected officials who are not politically aligned with them.”
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.