ORLANDO, Fla. — Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr., who presides over the George Zimmerman murder case, is one of the highest-ranked jurists in Central Florida, according to a recent poll of criminal defense attorneys.
Lester, a 15-year veteran of the bench who works in Sanford, Fla., received uniformly high marks for his legal knowledge, demeanor, impartiality and diligence.
His overall score was 4.55, closer to “excellent” (5) than “good” (4) on the five-point scale used by the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The group annually polls its members, other defense attorneys and prosecutors, asking them to rate area judges who handle criminal cases on their legal knowledge, impartiality, demeanor and freedom from bias.
This year, they rated 70 judges.
The jurist with the highest rating is retired: O.H. Eaton Jr., a former Seminole circuit judge who earlier this year stepped back onto the bench to handle more than 15 trials at the Orange County Courthouse.
His most noteworthy came in February, when he acquitted Delores Laster, the former Orange County teacher charged with first-degree murder in a 20-year-old cold-case homicide.
Eaton picked a jury, listened to the state’s evidence then threw out the case, citing a lack of evidence.
Eaton said Thursday that he was pleased but baffled by the poll results. He suspected, he said, that lawyers liked that he started on time and did his job.
Lester said he suspects he did well because he likes lawyers and, when he was in private practice, came to know what it’s like to be in front of good judges and bad ones.
“I went all over the place,” he said. “I’ve been abused by judges all over the place. I’ve had horrible things happen to me around the country. . I’ve always tried to be as respectful as possible.”
One of the worst-rated is Orange County Judge Antoinette Plogstedt, who’s seeking re-election. Her overall rating was 2.28, closer to “poor” (2) than “satisfactory” (3). Several critics, who wrote comments anonymously, said she was embarrassingly pro-prosecution.
“Judge Plogstedt . seems to think that everyone is guilty because they have been arrested,” wrote one poll participant.
“As a state attorney, Judge Plogstedt makes my cases easy to prove,” wrote another.
Plogstedt, a former prosecutor who’s been on the bench 12 years, said she could not explain the low number but added, “It’s an election year and strange things happen. . My opponent got to fill out the survey, and so did his friends.”
She is opposed by Adam McGinnis, an Orlando criminal defense attorney.
The lowest-rated judge in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties is Seminole County Judge Carmine Bravo, 70, who’s set to retire in December. He scored 1.93, between “very poor” (1) and “poor” (2).
Bravo said he’s not sure why he fared so badly.
“I show up. I do my job. I’m proud of what I do,” he said. “The criminal defense lawyers maybe don’t like somebody who’s more conservative.”
Last week Bravo received the Harvey Ford Award from the Conference of County Court Judges of Florida, recognition for his work on behalf of the conference, legal profession and community service.