Monday, August 6, 2012

Lamar for state attorney

The race for Orange-Osceola state attorney — whose job it is, along with appointed assistants, to decide what cases to prosecute - has been a slugfest.

Casey Anthony prosecutor Jeff Ashton is running to unseat his former boss, State Attorney Lawson Lamar. Despite the rhetorical haymakers, both insist the heated prelude to the open, winner-take-all primary isn't personal.

That aside, the contest shapes up as a philosophical fight for the soul of the office that Lamar has manned for 24 years.

If Ashton wins, he'll lead by trying cases - something Lamar last did in 1989. Regularly setting foot in the courtroom, he says, keeps the state attorney current on what prosecutors face in court and inspires the troops. Lamar insists that juggling cases detracts from his managerial duties. He argues that leading every grand jury proceeding keeps him fresh.

Ashton contends office morale has cratered because prosecutors feel bullied to bring weak cases to trial. Mediocrity rules the office where he worked for 22 years, he says. And Ashton decries office technology as Jurassic - for instance, there's no Wi-Fi. However, he says Lamar's worst offense is not getting the job done, pointing to conviction rates slightly above 50 percent.

Of course, Ashton knows conviction rates can be misleading. Trying tough cases, as Lamar insists he does, sinks percentages. And while occasionally trying cases could be beneficial for the top prosecutor, it sometimes smacks of a politician wanting to take center stage for a big case.

What's more crucial is having the administrative chops to run an office with 145 attorneys, a $25 million budget and a caseload of nearly 89,000, and that's a primary reason we recommend returning Lamar to office.

That, and our concerns that Ashton favors limiting the public's access to information prior to trials. Florida already has too many public officials who want to weaken the state's open government laws. As messy as the Casey Anthony trial might have been, in the end a jury rendered a verdict that we don't believe was tainted by the publicity. Ashton may not see it that way, but he was on the losing end.

Ashton also would dismantle the team of lawyers tasked with investigating public corruption. While we're not convinced Lamar's unit has done enough over the years, we're certain that dismantling it as Ashton proposes would mean even less focus on official corruption.

Not that we recommend Lamar without reservation.

Last year, we scolded Lamar not only for the wrongful prosecution of Marlenne Joseph - a Haitian-born mother of two, who was the victim of shoddy police work and mistaken IDs - but also for ducking the Innocence Commission, a panel charged with preventing such egregious errors.

And we agree with Ashton that Lamar needs to more aggressively pursue technology upgrades to help prosecutors be more efficient and stay ahead of the crime curve.

By The Orlando Sentinel

Source: The Orlando Sentinel

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