Lamar Defends Record as Ashton, Williams Close In
After two-minute introductions, the four candidates in the race for State Attorney for Orange/Osceola County – incumbent Lawson Lamar, former prosecutors Jeff Ashton and Ryan Williams and longtime defense lawyer Joerg Jaeger — fielded a range of questions Wednesday, at a candidates’ forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Orange County.
Among the questions posed were: the utility of conviction rates in determining the effectiveness of prosecutions; funding of the State Attorney’s Office; Florida’s stand your ground law and juvenile justice. As Orange/Osceola County has one of the lowest convictions rates in the state, this issue was hotly debated.
Lamar said convictions rates are “relatively worthless statistics,” and pointed out that his office sends more people to prison than circuits with higher rates.
“We are not in this for conviction rates,” he said. “We try hard cases…my lawyers try more cases than any other State Attorney’s offices in the State of Florida. And that’s why we have a so called low conviction rate.” We are not in this for the win-loss, we are in this to protect people, he added.
But Ashton hit back saying while conviction rates ought to be only one measure in determining effective prosecution, the counties’ 50 percent rate is worrisome and this must be reviewed.
Williams, like Ashton, said conviction rates should be viewed as only one measure and other criteria, such as crime rates ought to be used in determining effectiveness.
Ashton and Williams decried the wrong-headed policy of taking cases to court which are difficult to prove, particularly given the inadequate resources of the Office.
“Victims should have their day in court when its appropriate,” Williams said. “However, there are cases we can’t prove and its not appropriate.” Pointedly, he added, the current philosophy is one adopted by “somebody who hasn’t tried a case in a very long time.”
Ashton said it is “unethical” and a “waste of tax dollars” to take cases to trial that can’t be won.
Jaeger, who for the most part joked and laughed with his friend Lamar throughout the forum, and seemed to be having a good old time, mouthed the usual Republican utterance that, “we have to live within our budget,” and suggested Duval County’s diversion program might serve as a model for Orange/Osceola.
Stand Your Ground Law
Asked about Florida’s much discussed stand your ground law, which has recently come to the forefront following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, Ashton was the lone voice calling for its repeal.
“What stand your ground does is elevate crime over human life,” he said to loud applause. “It’s wrong, it needs to be repealed, end of story.”
Not surprisingly, Lamar and Jaeger said they both supported a person’s right of self-defense, but pointed out that the law has been “misapplied.”
Williams said the law turns law enforcement officers into lawyers and suggested in the Trayvon Martin case specifically, the Seminole County State Attorney’s Office should have communicated early with the Martin family.
“The State Attorney’s response ought to have been to call the family the day after the shooting and say, ‘this is what we have, we are going to get justice for your son,’ he said. “Instead, they sat on the case for a very long time and that allowed outrage to build, justifiably so.”
Pre-Trial Diversion Program
Lamar stoutly defended his Office’s pre-trial diversion program, which Ashton, Williams and Jaeger suggested was too robotic and needed loosening up.
“I believe that pre-trial diversion is essential for the operation of the justice system, ” Ashton said. “If we can keep people out of the criminal justice system and keep them from coming back, then we have done the community and those individuals a service.”
Lamar said there is a “fair amount” of adult pre-trial diversion and the largest area was in juvenile cases. According to him, 3 percent of juveniles are sent to adult court.
Juveniles Charged Directly as Adults
Asked what policies they would put in place regarding the direct charging of juveniles as adults and whether such criteria ought to be published, Ashton said, each case must be looked at individually. He was not in favor of publishing specific criteria.
Williams agreed with Ashton that each case is a judgement call to be made by people with the requisite experience. He added that the juvenile justice system is broken and does need work. Unlike Ashton, he said he would publish guidelines so parents and juveniles would be familiar with the law.
Lamar defended the juvenile justice system and pointed out that less than four percent of juveniles are charged directly as adults. Since 2006, there has been an almost two-thirds reduction in juvenile violent crimes.
Ashton concluded by declaring that, the State Attorney’s Office is “broken and it doesn’t work.” He said the Office needed new leadership to bring it into the 21 Century and he has the experience to do just that.
Williams told the audience he has the “judgment and character” to lead and questioned the ethical compass of Ashton and Lamar, citing two earlier instances where, according to him, both had failed in their responsibilities.
Lamar quickly debunked Williams’ assertion, pointing out that all candidates had “the character to protect the rights of the innocent.” He touted his leadership ability and experience and suggested the Office is “not one for on the job training” and “not a task for a person who cannot control their emotions in the court room,” no doubt referring to Ashton’s outburst during the Casey Anthony trial.
Jaeger, rather than highlighting what he would bring to the Office, spent most of his concluding remarks calling into question Ashton’s record, until he was admonished by Ann Hellmuth, the League’s president. He hurriedly suggested he would bring an open door policy and accountability to the Office, as well as establish a death penalty committee. Hellmuth granted Ashton a few minutes to shoot down Jaeger’s claims, before bringing the forum to a close.
Today’s discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Durocher, Barry University Law professor and former juvenile court judge and 9th Judicial Circuit public defender.