ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — There are five capital murder cases working their way through Central Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit. Right now, the job of prosecuting those cases belongs to State Attorney Jeff Ashton. After the first of the year, that responsibility will fall to incoming State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
In his first sit-down interview since losing his re-election bid, Ashton met with Eyewitness News to discuss his time as a state attorney, including his greatest successes, why he says he was forced out by "two white men who decided that I was a racist," and why he said he'll never seek public office again.
Ashton's time as state attorney
“I love this job. I leave it with great regret,” said Ashton at the start of Heath’s interview as he discussed the modernization of the office and the increases to funding that have made it possible.
“It would be great if prosecutors had the same caseloads as civil lawyers do, but that’s never going to happen. The question is getting us up to a level where we are equal with everybody else in the state, and I think we accomplished that,” said Ashton.
Down the hall from the conference room that Ashton is using to fill moving boxes is a large vacant space that used to be the law library. In the last year, the state attorney’s office has moved its law library online and donated the stacks of books to a local law school.
“We are technologically as capable as any civil law firm in town,” Ashton boasts.
Two cases defined Ashton's career
While he first made a national name for himself as the lead prosecutor in the Casey Anthony case, it is two cases he handled since his election in 2012 that have defined his tenure: a murder and a case of government corruption.
In 2012, months before Ashton was sworn into office, Bessman Okafor was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Alex Zaldivar. Zaldivar had been a witness in a home invasion case involving Okafor and was unaware that Okafor had slipped off his court-ordered GPS monitoring while awaiting trial.
“It was a total system failure to protect the victims,” said Ashton. “The system utterly failed the victims in that case, and I think that’s the biggest lesson we learned is that we have an obligation to those victims, the fact that our monitoring system completely failed.”
In 2015, an Orange County jury recommended the death penalty for Okafor. Ashton credits the surviving witnesses and the family of Alex Zaldivar for helping deliver the conviction.
“The strength that the surviving victims showed in continuing to come to court and testify over and over again was inspirational to me, because at any point it would have made total sense for them to say, ‘I’m done,’” said Ashton.
The other case that marked Ashton’s time in office dealt with corruption at what had been the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.
In 2013, the state attorney's office began investigating a possible Sunshine Law violation at OOCEA. Ashton's office would deliver three indictments, ultimately securing a conviction against former board member Scott Batterson on two bribery-related charges. In the fallout from the Batterson case, the Florida Legislature passed legislation remaking the expressway authority into the Central Florida Expressway Authority and perhaps more importantly, changing the composition of the board, filling it with more elected leaders and fewer appointed members.
“That authority had been a source of some embarrassment for many many years, in terms of just the culture of corruption, prior grand jury investigations,” said Ashton. “I hope that public officials from the Batterson case, that their obligation is to the people of this community and not to themselves or their friends or to line people’s pockets.”
Those may be the high marks for Ashton’s tenure in the office. There have also been low marks and ongoing investigations that have frayed tensions.
Excessive force investigations
In his tenure, Ashton's office has investigated law enforcement shootings and allegations of excessive use of force. Ashton's office did not charge Orlando police Officers David Cruz and Charles Mays, who were accused of kicking a man outside a club and using a stun gun on him. But the state attorney's office did deliver a conviction in the Peter Delio case. Delio, a former OPD officer was found guilty of felony battery for kneeing a suspect so hard that it ruptured the man's spleen.
“Where we see police misconduct, we go after it, and where we find that police did not act inappropriately, then we defend them,” said Ashton. “The Orlando Police Department is a better police department today than it was four years ago.”
Ashley Madison scandal
Tensions between Ashton and law enforcement came to the forefront in 2015 when online hackers revealed an extensive list of people who had used the adult website Ashley Madison. Among the thousands of names on the list was Ashton's. He, at the time, held a press conference and admitted to using the site, which bills itself as a way for a married person to set up a discreet affair.
Orlando's Fraternal Order of Police called for an investigation of Ashton.
When asked if the hack and subsequent scandal hurt him in the election, all Ashton would say is, “Only personally. Only in terms of the apologies that I owe to my wife that I can never say often enough.”
Whether the Ashley Madison scandal harmed Ashton in his 2016 re-election bid is uncertain, but it is undeniable that he was significantly outspent in campaign, which featured unfounded claims of racism and manipulation of state election rules.
Ashton loses election
In August, Ashton lost in the Democratic primary to Aramis Ayala. Under Florida law, the primary was closed to Independent and Republican voters because of write-in candidate Bill Vose, who filed to run but never mounted any significant campaign. Vose had been a former attorney within the state attorney's office, but was not retained by Ashton when he won election in 2012.
“We ended his 25-year reign and he resents it,” said Ashton of Vose. “I think Bill Vose just did it out of spite. I really don’t expect him to return to the office, but I do expect he and his cronies to have some influence with her (Ayala).”
During the campaign, Ashton was hammered by $1.3 million in outside spending on behalf of Ayala from liberal billionaire George Soros. The outside money paid for misleading attack ads and mailers that depicted Ashton's office as a place where defendants received different justice depending on the color of their skin, including a pair of ads that stated being a "person of color is a crime" and "white people have a "get-out-of-jail free card." Eyewitness News reviewed these ads during the campaign and found their claims to be greatly misleading.
“When somebody in the last month before the election decides that they want to put $1.3 or $1.4 million into a race, there is just not a lot you can do,” said Ashton. “That amount of money, as far as I know, is absolutely unprecedented in a local election.”
Ashton said he took the campaign seriously but openly wonders what the office will look like in the coming years.
“It wasn’t an honest campaign. It sort of proves all you got to have is a million dollars and a lie,” said Ashton. “Aramis Ayala is the state attorney now because two white men decided that I was not to continue. One out of spite, that was Bill Vose. The other out of racism, which is George Soros. The only thing that George Soros knew about me was that I was white and she was black, and that’s a tough way to start an elected position and that’s the reality.”
As for what comes next, Ashton has hinted that he may write another book, teach or do some legal work on TV. He said while he enjoyed his time in office, he will not be running again, saying the way his tenure ended has soured him to the prospect of holding office.
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