Primary Voters to Choose Orange-Osceola State Attorney in Heated Race
Aug 6, 2012 | WMFE - The race for Orange-Osceola State Attorney is not usually a headline-grabber, but this year's Ninth Judicial Circuit contest is getting a lot of attention. It's between incumbent Lawson Lamar, who's held the office for more than two decades, and former Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who's perhaps best known for prosecuting the Casey Anthony case. They're both Democrats, so next week's primary voters will decide the winner...but just because they're in the same party doesn't mean they share the same crime-fighting philosophy.
It may seem surprising that Lawson Lamar and Jeff Ashton worked together for so long – about 23 years. Jeff Ashton had already been working under the previous State Attorney for about eight years when Lamar took office in 1989 after two terms as Orange County Sheriff.
So, how much difference would a new State Attorney make?
University of Central Florida Criminal Justice Professor Ross Wolf says State Attorneys are guided by established case law, but there’s plenty of room for interpretation. “That’s important for the people in the constituency to know about who’s running the office,” Wolf says. “How are those cases going to be handled? Who’s going to be prosecuted? Who’s not going to be prosecuted? How often are they going to use plea bargaining and when are they going to use plea bargaining? When are they going to go after stricter penalties, and when are they not?”
Former prosecutor Jeff Ashton explains that he’s running because he watched those decisions get bogged down in bureaucracy under Lamar’s tenure. He says Lamar has slowly become less engaged in his office, and that’s left what Ashton calls a power vacuum.
“One of the difficulties with the way the office is run now is that that vacuum is filled by junior managers,” Ashton says. “And so what you ultimately have is, you have policies change with the change in junior manager. And so you don't have consistency.”
So, Ashton says, attorneys aim to please those junior managers, not to seek justice based on a consistent office philosophy.
“The guy at the top – and that’s me – is not detached,” counters incumbent State Attorney Lawson Lamar. “I find out things very, very quickly.”
Lamar says junior managers are simply a necessary part of the organizational structure that keeps his office running smoothly.
“I cannot supervise 140-some lawyers individually and micromanage them,” Lamar says. “That would be a giant mistake, because they need to have a manager close enough to talk to, that knows exactly what they've been told.”
Lamar says his system is not an unwieldy bureaucracy and the fact that Ashton doesn’t understand it highlights a major weakness. “He wouldn't know how it works because he was never a part of management,” Lamar states. “He never ran anything.”
For his part, Ashton says Lamar confuses “management” with “leadership,” and that reveals a stark difference in the two candidates’ philosophies.
“I was a leader in that office,” says Ashton. “I didn't have a title. I didn't want a title. I did not want to be a manager whose only concern was the happiness of the person above them. I wanted to be a leader in the courtroom.”
If elected, Ashton says, he would move the office toward a more courtroom-centered philosophy and put attorneys in front of judges instead of behind desks.
Aside from the usual issues that define the differences between two candidates, there’s another element in this race – the Casey Anthony case.
Jeff Ashton was one of two Assistant State Attorneys from Lamar’s office who led the prosecution against Anthony in court. Ashton wrote a book on it after he retired last year.
The case is something Lamar says can’t be ignored.
“The Anthony case is the only reason that anyone knows my opponent,” says Lamar. “He has banked on his notoriety from that case.”
“Notoriety” because Casey Anthony was acquitted for the death of her two-year-old daughter Caylee in the highly-publicized case.
Ashton has a different take. “Generally, I have found that the public perception of my performance was very, very positive,” he asserts. “But again, I keep telling people, that was the end of my 30-year career, not the beginning. So I've asked people to focus on the broader view.”
Ashton is also known as the first attorney in the country to use DNA evidence in a courtroom, back in the 1980s. The Fraternal Order of Police endorses him, along with two firefighters’ unions, numerous private attorneys, and other individuals including some family members of crime victims.
The Police Benevolent Association is backing Lamar, along with the Central Florida Criminal Justice Association and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, among others.