By Anthony Colarossi, The Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — Supporters clapped outside the Orange County Courthouse Tuesday as retired prosecutor Jeff Ashton announced his bid for state attorney, challenging his former boss and longtime incumbent Lawson Lamar.
Former Orlando Police officer Eddie Diaz introduced Ashton and described his assistance in prosecuting the man who shot him and killed fellow officer George DeSalvia during a traffic stop in 2000.
“Eddie is one of the true heroes,” Ashton said.
He then said, “It’s been more than 20 years since the voters of Orange and Osceola counties have had a real choice in who leads the office to my left. That decision has been made for them by politicians for a politician.”
“Today I stand before you to give the voters a choice,” Ashton said.
He went on to describe a “steady decline” in the reputation of the state attorney’s office and cited statistics indicating Lamar’s prosecutors succeed at trial on 50 percent of the time. He said the office has the “second lowest conviction rate in all of Florida.”
“It is time for new leadership to return the state attorney’s office to the reputation that it deserves,” he said.
Ashton said he has tried more than 300 cases, handled more than 10,000 others and has a personal conviction rate at trial better than 75 percent. When he retired last year after the Casey Anthony case, he said he was “the most experienced trial prosecutor in the history of that office.”
Lamar’s campaign did not have an immediate response to Ashton’s announcement and statements. However, it confirmed Lamar would give a formal response at noon EST on Friday also at the Orange County Courthouse.
Some in the Orlando legal community believe Ashton, 54, is a serious challenger to longtime incumbent Lamar because he has national name recognition and the potential to raise many small contributions well beyond the Central Florida area.
Others suggest that while he is a highly experienced trial attorney, he may not have the management skills and political ties that are also part of holding the office.
Ashton became a regular fixture on national television during the Casey Anthony trial last summer. After that, he resigned from the state attorney’s office and wrote the best-selling book “Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony.” He also made year-end appearances on national television to discuss the murder case.
Riding the wave of the book’s popularity, Ashton now seeks to take control of the large prosecuting office where he worked for three decades.
During an interview with The Orlando Sentinel, Ashton said he hopes voters consider his overall record and his plans to make changes in the office.
“This election should not be determined by that case,” Ashton said.
He added, “I’ve done it all,” working in all parts of the office, handling misdemeanor, felony, juvenile and homicide cases. His years of experience in the office, he said, “gives me a unique set of qualifications to understand how all the parts come together to make what we present in court in front of juries the best it can possibly be.”
Ashton has characterized himself as a career prosecutor, while casting his former employer as a politician.
Lamar, a Democrat like Ashton, has served in the state attorney’s job since 1989 and has often gone without a serious challenge for the powerful position. Lamar hasn’t publicly commented on Ashton’s candidacy.
Lamar also faces a third Democrat and another former employee, Ryan Williams. No Republican candidate has entered the race so far.