Casey Anthony looms over state attorney’s race
This article first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. View original here
7:15 p.m. EST, July 4, 2012|
By Jeff Weiner, Orlando Sentinel
A year ago Thursday, Casey Anthony was acquitted of murder in the death of her daughter, and two key players in that ultra-high-profile case are among three contenders set to square off in an August primary that will decide the Orange-Osceola state attorney's race.
State Attorney Lawson Lamar, the longtime incumbent, faces fellow Democrats Jeff Ashton and Ryan Williams, former prosecutors in Lamar's office, in a contentious race that includes no Republican challengers.
Ashton's presence raises the intrigue of the race; he became a household name last year as the best-recognized member of the team of lawyers who prosecuted Anthony in 2-year-old Caylee's death.
Still, it's unclear what effect the Casey Anthony case will have on the race's outcome.
"It does seem to be higher profile than in the past," said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando and chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. "Part of that could just be three candidates who are campaigning in the community."
Lamar, he said, has not often faced strong competition in his more than 20 years in office. In 2008, he faced no primary challenger.
Dick Batchelor, a well-known political consultant, says he hasn't heard much more buzz around the race this year compared with past election years. The general public still finds more interest in national and statewide elections, Batchelor said, adding that Lamar's long incumbency could balance Ashton's name recognition.
Randolph hasn't backed a candidate in the race. Batchelor says he supports Lamar. Neither man has donated to a campaign.
Lamar told the Sentinel he fully expects Ashton's name recognition to play a factor.
"I'm running against celebrity," Lamar said, rather than opponents ready to lead the "complex organization" he has led since 1989. "My job is not to seek publicity."
Lamar argues that, but for the Anthony case, Ashton wouldn't even be in the race. The incumbent says his long record and experience speak for themselves.
Williams, the one contender not linked to the Anthony case, described Ashton as "a very polarizing figure."
"When you lose a media case, it has ramifications," Williams said. Anthony's acquittal happened "on the biggest stage you could possibly imagine" and will affect how "people see our office and the criminal-justice system."
Williams was referring to the flip side of the attention the case brings Ashton and, to a lesser extent, Lamar: The Casey Anthony case was high-publicized but also a defeat.
Ashton, however, says the public's response to his work on the case has been positive.
"People can judge my performance for themselves," Ashton told the Sentinel. "You can't spin that. It is what it is."
Ashton says the case's real effect was to re-engage the public in the criminal-justice process and "to the fact that the state-attorney race is important. Because it is."
"Who is in that office is important for that community," he says.
Ashton adds that the case was an education in modern prosecutorial tactics and cost-cutting measures — the use of social media and online depositions, for example — that Lamar has never embraced.
The candidates have much more than Casey Anthony to divide them: The campaigns disagree on a number of topics. Williams and Ashton have been highly critical of Lamar's management style and conviction rates, while Lamar — a former Orange County sheriff and longtime state attorney — says that data are easily manipulated and his opponents have no management experience.
Williams says those who prosecuted Anthony have shown a lack of accountability in the wake of the verdict. After a trial lasting nearly two months and with the world watching, Anthony was acquitted on all major charges. That, he said, should never happen.
"Yet no one has explained how that ended up happening," Williams said.
Ashton wrote a book about the Anthony case and has made numerous media appearances. That best-seller, "Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony," is set to become a TV movie for Lifetime. Ashton attributes the verdict, in part, to the effect pretrial publicity had on selecting a jury — the type of jurors he wanted, he says, were also the kind of people likely to follow the news.
Lamar has stayed largely quiet since the verdict, insisting that the case was important to the media, but to him, no more so than the dozens of other homicides his office handles each year.
"I don't have time to look into the rearview mirror," he said.
Because the sole Republican in the race dropped out, the Orange-Osceola state attorney's race will be decided among Lamar, Williams and Ashton in an open primary Aug. 14.
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