ORLANDO – Standing before the Orange County Courthouse, fresh from tackling the most high profile criminal case in recent Orlando history and then successfully writing a book about it, former prosecutor Jeff Ashton kicked off his campaign for state attorney today, promising to give voters something they haven’t had in a long time: a choice.
Ashton, the prosecutor in the Casey Anthony murder trial and the author of a book about the case, “Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony,” tossed his hat into the political ring on Tuesday, announcing that he was challenging the incumbent – and his former boss — Lawson Lamar, state attorney in the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.
And Ashton pledged to make it a genuinely competitive campaign.
“It’s been more than 20 years since the voters of Orange and Osceola County had a real decision to make in who leads them in this building behind me,” Ashton said as he stood in front of the courthouse on Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando, as a group of supporters gathered behind him and a collection of television camera crews captured it all.
“Today I stand before you to give you a real choice – a prosecutor or a politician,” he said.
Ashton gained national attention last summer as he attempted to prosecute Casey Anthony for the first degree murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee. The trial lasted six weeks, from May to July this year. On July 5, the jury found Casey not guilty of murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child. She was convicted of four misdemeanor counts of lying to police officers. With credit for time served, she was released from the Orange County jail on July 17.
When the verdict was announced, it was met with a wave of public outrage. But when Ashton made an appearance at the Orlando Public Library in November, the crowd that turned out to hear him was so large that it became standing room only, and library staff had to clear away tables next to the library’s Gift & Greetings Shop just to bring in more chairs to accommodate everyone. When Ashton walked onto the stage, he was greeted with thunderous applause.
Ashton made no mention of the Anthony case this morning, focusing instead of his plans for leading the State Attorney’s office and increasing the number of successful prosecutions – even though the Anthony trial was not one of them.
He noted that he’s a native Floridian who was born in St. Petersburg and attended the University of Florida, where he studied law and decided that prosecuting criminals was what he wanted to do.
“I wanted to be a prosecutor because I felt the prosecutor was the one person who had the power to see justice done,” he said.
Throughout his more than three decades as a prosecutor, Ashton noted that he had handled every imaginable type of case, from petit theft to drunken driving to capital murder.
“I’ve tried over 300 cases in my career,” he said. “In that time, I have learned the difference between prosecuting for justice and prosecuting for appearance.”
He was introduced to the crowd by retired law enforcement officer Eddie Diaz, who noted that Ashton prosecuted the man who shot him seven times, nearly killing him and forcing his early retirement.
“I can say as a victim and former law enforcement officer, that there’s no one I’d rather have in the courtroom than Jeff Ashton,” Diaz said.
Ashton also said he would strengthen an office that has the second lowest conviction rate in Florida, a statistic he blamed on his former boss for prosecuting too many weak cases that get bounced by judges before they even go to trial.
“I saw the reputation of that office in steady decline,” he said. “I believe it is time for new leadership.”
He accused Lamar’s office of pulling valuable police officers off the streets to testify in court, only to see far too many of those cases end up with jurors siding with the defendant being prosecuted and finding them not guilty.
“Half the time that this office brings citizens from their home or job and subpoenas them down to this court there to testify, it is a waste of time,” he said. “That has to change.”
He said those statistics reflected “poor judgment in deciding what cases to dismiss and what cases to bring to trial.”
If he wins the Democratic primary on Aug. 14, Ashton pledged a new aggressiveness in the State Attorney’s office.
“I have the judgment to lead,” he said. “I know the difference between trying a tough case and a bad one. This office needs to change its policy of prosecuting cases. This present administration has 12 lawyers with law degrees who don’t practice law. That has to change. What goes on in that building is what is most important to the State Attorney’s office. Bureaucracy is an easy way for managers to manage, but it’s not a way to get things done. In my office, attorneys will be responsible for the cases assigned to them, and victims will no longer be passed from one lawyer to another. No longer will lawyers duplicate each other’s work.”
He also promised to bring every possible technological advance into the office, employing high tech methods to prosecute crimes.
“My hope is that the people of Orange and Osceola County now know they have a choice,” he said. “Is it his job to be a politician, or is it his job to be a prosecutor?”
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