The man who decided to seek the death penalty for Casey Anthony and one of the prosecutors he assigned to convict her faced off Wednesday in their first forum as they run against each other for Orange-Osceola State Attorney.
Lawson Lamar, who's held the office since 1989 after being twice elected Orange County sheriff, is facing his first serious contender in his former employee, Jeff Ashton.
They, along with two lesser-known contenders, met on the one-year anniversary of jury selection beginning in the Casey Anthony trial in Clearwater. Anthony was acquitted two months later of murdering her daughter, Caylee.
The lunchtime faceoff attracted a sold-out crowd of about 175 to the event, sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Ashton has criticized the relatively low conviction rate of the office under Lamar.
"When our conviction rate becomes the second lowest in the entire state, it is something we should talk about," he said, though he added it is not the only factor.
"Conviction rate is a relatively worthless statistic," Lamar said. "If you file easy cases and don't file the hard ones and you take a plea" that fails to to put the convict in prison, Lamar noted, that counts as a conviction. "We send more people to prison than the circuits that in almost all cases have higher conviction rates."
Ryan Williams noted Jesse Davis, who's suspected in the recent murders of two high school students near Winter Park, was allowed weeks earlier to serve probation by a Lamar prosecutor, despite several prior convictions and psychiatric findings that Davis was a danger.
"That kind of case gets missed when we are chasing our tail on cases we cannot prove," Williams said.
"To take a case to trial you know you cannot win is, first, unethical and, second, a waste of your tax dollars," Ashton said.
Though it occurred in neighboring Seminole County, the Trayvon Martin killing was the subject of one of the questions, which were suggested by the candidates themselves and members of the League of Women Voters.
Lamar said the "stand your ground" law "as written is too easily misunderstood. It has sweeping language and an immunity provision that needs to be tightened," adding some agencies, fearing lawsuits, are afraid to arrest suspects.
The other candidates also had problems with the law, which Ashton said "elevates pride over human life. It's wrong. It needs to be repealed."
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