ORLANDO, Fla. — Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell on Thursday said she has complied with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for information in the past cases against shooting suspect Keith Moses and accused the governor of seeking to justify suspending her from office.
“I am an elected Democrat who is not in alignment with the governor’s politics,” she said at a press conference. “This has been an attempt to build a basis for a suspension.”
The state attorney said the governor’s office has been working with Osceola Sheriff Marcos López and Orange County Sheriff John Mina as well as interviewing local law enforcement and “people who leave my office” in an effort to build a case against her.
“This isn’t about whether I follow the law, this isn’t about whether or not my policies are a danger to public safety,” she said. “This is about the governor wanting to control the politics across this state. And quite frankly it’s dangerous because this is a democracy not a dictatorship.”
Michelle Guido, a spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, called the Worrell’s accusation against Mina “categorially false.”
“Sheriff Mina has had no conversations with the Governor or the governor’s office about building a case to remove State Attorney Worrell,” she said in a statement to the Orlando Sentinel.
Worrell has been in a back-and-forth with DeSantis since late February when he first made comments accusing her office of negligence for not prosecuting 19-year-old Moses for misdemeanor marijuana charges in November 2021. Moses is accused in the Feb. 22 shooting spree that killed three people, including a Spectrum News 13 reporter and a 9-year-old girl, and injured two others in Pine Hills.
As a minor, he had been arrested over a dozen times on charges including domestic battery, burglary, grand theft and drug possession. In Florida, juveniles are not convicted of crimes unless charged as adults.
“I know the district attorney, state attorney, in Orlando thinks you don’t prosecute people, and that’s how you somehow have a better community – that does not work,” DeSantis said at a news conference.
The governor’s comments were followed up last week with a formal request for information from his general counsel Ryan Newman, who asked Worrell’s office for records of Moses’ past cases and a large compiling of every instance in which a person arrested for a felony or in violation of probation was not charged by her office.
The reason for the inquiry, which had to be fulfilled by next Tuesday, is to “determine if Mr. Moses was enabled by gaps in our sentencing laws that must be corrected, or, to be frank, your office’s failure to properly administer justice,” the letter said.
Worrell said her office has sent all the information requested to the governor, except his inquiry that would require an audit of her entire office, which she said would cost taxpayers $800,000. She also said it was “unrealistic” to expect such a large records demand to be fulfilled in two weeks.
The exchanges between Worrell and DeSantis are escalating as former Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, who was suspended by the governor in August, challenges DeSantis’ decision in state and federal courts.
Warren was suspended for his relaxed prosecution policy on certain minor crimes and a signed joint statement that said he would not charge anyone who violated laws on abortion access and gender-affirming care.
Worrell, like Warren, is a Democrat who has been deemed a “woke” prosecutor by GOP officials. She also signed the transgender health care joint statement cited by the governor in Warren’s case.
And during Warren’s trial in November, Larry Keefe, the governor’s public safety czar, said Orange County Sheriff John Mina had complaints about Worrell similar to those against Warren, according to Florida Politics.
Worrell also criticized Mina, saying his deputies acted carelessly on the night of Moses’ only arrest as an adult in connection with 4.6 grams of marijuana in November 2021, less than a year after the state attorney took office.
A gun found at the scene was not tested for DNA by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, despite an arrest report indicating it would be, Worrell said. If the gun was linked to Moses, he could have faced a felony charge, not just a misdemeanor drug charge.
An OCSO deputy at the scene also declined to issue a probation violation as an adult for Moses, who was on juvenile felony probation at the time, according to court records. He instead said he would follow up with his probation officer.
The Sheriff’s Office has not responded to a request for comment about the lack of a DNA test or whether the officer followed up with Moses’ probation officer.
Worrell pointed out that the OCSO’s possible shortcomings in the arrest have not been cause for an inquiry from the governor’s office.
“Why did he not also solicit information from the sheriff (for) their self-proclaimed misstep in failing to test the firearm for DNA,” the State Attorney said Thursday. “(Mina) said, ‘Well, I would have liked to see that case prosecuted.’ Well ... then his deputy should have conducted the DNA warrant as he said he was going to.”
Regarding the gun found at the scene of the November 2021 incident, Worrell said, “I have found that last it week was finally sent for testing.”
OSCO did not respond to a question from the Sentinel about the recent testing. Instead a spokesperson said, “We are still looking into the 2021 case.”
The firearm was, however, “test-fired” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to “determine whether it had been used in other crimes,” the statement said, adding: “We are checking to see whether there are any results from that comparison but don’t have that information for you at this moment.”
Worrell’s office ultimately dropped the November 2021 case against Moses because the suspected cannabis substance could not be tested to see whether it was hemp or an illegal amount of marijuana — a consequence of a law DeSantis signed in 2019, Worrell said.
The bill amended the legal definition of cannabis to require a minimum of 0.3% of TCH, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. Worrell said this law made it “difficult, if not impossible” to differentiate between legal hemp and illegal cannabis.
In June of 2021, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which reports to the governor, set the standard amount of suspected cannabis testing at 20 grams, the felony amount, according to a memo provided by the state attorney.
“Facts matter. I know they don’t matter to the governor, I know they don’t matter to the senator and sometimes they don’t matter to the sheriff,” she said. “This is a statewide challenge faced by prosecutors everywhere; however, the governor and the senator chose to specifically select my office for criticism regarding an issue that was raised because of legislation that the governor himself signed.”
The senator Worrell referred to was U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who like DeSantis, has requested information from Worrell’s office after assailing its handling of Moses’ previous cases and demanding that “every prosecutor that chose to give (Moses) a pass should be fired.”
When Scott was the governor of Florida, he stripped 29 cases from Worrell’s predecessor, Aramis Ayala, after she pledged not to seek the death penalty.
Worrell pivoted her focus to the current legislative session, calling the permitless carry bill supported by state GOP leaders including DeSantis “catastrophic,” and championing her own proposal to reform the juvenile justice system, which she said has become a proposed bill.
According to a summary of the legislative request, Worrell would like to raise the age of jurisdiction in juvenile court from 19 to 21, because many cases in which a suspect is 16 or 17 are not given enough time to properly address the offenses, Worrell said.
The proposed legislation would also seek enable the Department of Juvenile Justice to keep minors who commit serious, violent offenses longer. “No current State programs remove juveniles from problematic environments long enough for the juvenile to experience changed behavior or attitudes,” the proposal said.
Last week, the families of Spectrum News 13 reporter Dylan Lyons and 9-year-old T’Yonna Major, who were both killed in the shootings, accused DeSantis and Scott the of exploiting the shooting spree.
“They are sickened over what they believe has been the exploitation of their children’s deaths by Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Rick Scott,” said Attorney Mark NeJame, who is representing the families of Lyons and Major.
He continued: “If DeSantis and Scott truly cared about these victims, they would not only have reached out to (the families), but they could be addressing the issues of gun violence and reasonable and sane gun legislation.”
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