“You couldn’t have been put away for life by a nicer guy.”
It’s not what any defendant should be told about the prosecutor responsible for the conviction. It’s not what any decent person should say, anything a newspaper should be quoting.
But for all his ferocity, his seeming relish at annihilating opposing counsel, his ability to reduce witnesses to quivering puddles and to run up his office’s tally of convictions–he hasn’t lost a trial in well over a decade–it can be said of Jason Lewis.
Maybe it should be, just today, the day Lewis won the lifetime achievement award named for Stephen Boyles, the State Attorney’s highest award in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Volusia, Putnam and St. Johns counties. (Boyles was the Seventh Circuit’s State Attorney for 20 years, between 1968 and 1988, and a circuit judge for 10 years.)
Lewis is the assistant state attorney who since 2014 has managed the Flagler outpost of the State Attorney’s Office and oversees its homicide attorneys circuit-wide. “Lifetime achievement” may seem a bit overstated: at 47 he’s barely at mid-career, though 100 jury trials and 25 homicide trials counts for a lifetime. And since he’s been in Flagler, he’s lost only one case, back in 2006 in Putnam.
“Today we’re going to recognize a special prosecutor,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza told the assembled staffs and attorneys of the four counties at the Palm Coast Community Center early this afternoon, a crowd of over 100. “He’s a little bit on the quirky side. I tell you, I’ve never seen anybody else that eats a banana in the courtroom. But this guy does a lot more than that. Jason Lewis, where are you?”
Lewis had no idea. He’d been sitting in the thick of the room, watching and applauding the 17 other people who got awards today (see the list below), though at the mention of the banana, he must’ve known. Everyone knew. Lewis rose, all 6 feet 3 inches of him–a height that puts him eye-to-eye with the judges’ elevated benches in the courtroom–and tried not to tower over his boss: he stood a few feet away in deference, as Larizza spoke of a career of quirks, successes and multitasking.
“I’ve never seen anybody that can be talking on the telephone, typing on his computer, and then I walk in–hey boss, how you doin? We just had a homicide. He’ll do four or five things at the same time, but you know what: he does them all well. Baba you know, he’s he’ll do four or five things at one time. You know what, but he does them well. He does them all well.”
Larizza last month tried the case of Othal Wallace, the 31-year-old man who killed Daytona Beach Police Officer Jayson Raynor, in a Clay County courtroom, with Lewis and Assistant State Attorney Andrew Urbanak. Lewis said he was disappointed by the verdict, which found Wallace guilty of manslaughter, not first-degree murder, which means the maximum Wallace will face when he is sentenced later this month is 30 years. He could have faced the death penalty on a first-degree murder conviction.
“I’m disappointed but I respect jury verdicts all the time, I think it’s the best system in the world,” Lewis said in an interview after the awards.
After getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida and his law degree from Florida State University, Lewis started his career at the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office in 2001, then was in statewide prosecutions from 2006 to 2009 in Jacksonville before landing in the Seventh Judicial Circuit–Daytona Beach for six years, St. Augustine for four years, then Flagler, where he’s been since.
As for those “mountains of ties and jackets” he keeps in his office, running around the office without shoes on and getting the occasional gentle rebuke from Larizza over it–well, that’s the side effects of his high energy. To date, he’s never unshoed in court no matter how comfortable he gets in there. The challenges at home may be a bit sharper with two teen-age children, one of them not always keen to ask his dad before taking the car.
Lewis is repeatedly asked if he has political ambitions: he has the mien, the smarts and the record, and he’s never put in his name in for any of the judgeships that come up periodically, as some of his colleagues have. But it makes him laugh away the question. He loves what he does now, he says.
“There’s nothing better than after a trial, being able to hug the families of the victims and getting some sense of justice,” Lewis said. “I always tell them that it’s not like it’s going to make things all better, but it turns the page for them and it gives them some semblance that society does actually look out for them. So that’s my favorite part after we get a successful verdict, and you just give a hug to that mom, dad, sister, brother who lost that loved one. Or even if it’s just they’re the victim of something.”
Coincidentally, one of the honorees today was Knoeidia Hill, the circuit’s Victim’s Advocate of the Year, who happens to be one of the advocates in Flagler. She’d started as a receptionist at the St. Augustine office before eventually becoming the advocate in Flagler in 2017.
“Knoeidia [pronounced KNO-dia] has worked with me and sat down with me on numerous next of kin meetings,” Larizza said. “For those of you who don’t know what those are, we meet with all the murder victims’ families in all four counties. And I’ll tell you, far too many of those meetings we have. But Knoeidia is so genuine and true and honest, and people respond to that. You truly are doing what you’re called to do. And you’re doing the work of the people and you’re doing God’s work. And we appreciate you so much.”
Another honoree tied to the Flagler office of the State Attorney was Tara Libby, one of three assistant state attorneys to get a Trial Top Gun Award, but the only one of the three who managed to win six of her eight trials with the kind of household she manages (“she put herself through law school while she was running a household with six kids and a husband, trying to keep them all straight,” Larizza said. “I just I can’t begin to describe how much you’ve grown as a prosecutor.”)
Larizza’s final words were to his entire four-county staff: “I just want you to know I love each and every one of you. I’m just proud to be a part of this organization,” he said, before turning to some political undercurrents that have been causing anxiety in the circuit–undercurrents provoked by Flagler County’s own Paul Renner, the current Speaker of the House. Renner asked the state Supreme Court in June to reexamine the state’s 20 circuits for possible consolidations.
In July the court appointed a committee to study the issue and make recommendations. Judge Christopher Kelly of the Seventh Judicial Circuit is on the committee. A sixth public hearing on the matter is scheduled for Oct. 13 in Orlando, and will be accessible by zoom (the same day that Renner holds the annual legislative delegation meeting in Flagler County, but at a different time).
“I know that there’s been some concern and talk about all this talk about circuit consolidation,” Larizza told his staff. “I just want to tell you something right now. We, me, the executive team, we’re protecting the Seventh Circuit. You don’t have anything to worry about. We’ll deal with that. You just keep doing your jobs each and every day. Because God smiles on those who work hard and do the people’s business and that’s what we do.”
A list of today’s honorees follows.
Distinguished Staff Member of the Year
Exemplary Service Award
Intake Top Gun
Trial Top Gun
Victim Advocate of the Year
Investigator of the Year