The 2020 election cycle saw an exodus of officeholders deciding to step down, rather than seek another term. Among them is Bill Eddins, the State Attorney for the 1st Judicial Circuit that covers Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Counties.
Eddins, who’s 74, began his 48-year legal career as an assistant state attorney in Milton; three years later he began a 25-year stint as a defense attorney before returning to the prosecutorial side for two reasons.
“One was that it was the best job I ever had; I love the idea that you were serving the public and that you were putting bad guys in jail,” Eddins said. “The second factor was that the State Attorney, Curtis Golden, was very helpful to me in getting me the space and the time that I needed to develop.”
When Golden retired, Eddins ran for and won the office which he has held for 16 years. He decided against seeking a fifth term, saying while he still loves the job, it’s simply time to go.
“I looked at the candles on the [birthday] cake, and even though my overall health is good, there were a lot of candles on that cake,” said Eddins. “So I decided that I wanted to leave now; I did not want to stay too long. I have seen other public officials do that, and I believe it was a good decision and the correct decision.”
Once in office, Eddins says he used the setup left by Curtis Golden as a base, and then worked to “change with the times” with the focuses on prosecuting violent crime; public corruption, child sexual and physical abuse, and manslaughter.
“As the office grew and we were able to hire a few more lawyers, I specialized more than Mr. Golden did,” said Eddins. “Where he had only a couple of homicide prosecutors in Escambia County, I added three special prosecutors — one of which focused on manslaughter.”
The office also began prosecuting crimes against children, through the child advocacy centers across the First Circuit.
“And managed to get experienced, career, seasoned prosecutors in all four counties prosecuting child abuse cases,” Eddins said. “That was a very important factor in my career; I was very pleased that we were able to do that.”
Eddins’ office has prosecuted literally thousands of criminal cases. Some that stand out for him includes the home invasion murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings in 2009, where seven murder convictions were won, along with an eighth for accessory after the fact. Then, there was a high profile corruption case in Okaloosa County.
“[The] prosecution of Charlie Morris, the sheriff, as well as his chief deputy and several other of his employees for theft from the public,” the State Attorney said. “Also Joey Graves, who was an FDLE agent and examined marijuana and other drugs. He was stealing the drugs and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.”
But the Eddins years have not been devoid of controversy. His office has come under fire for what many consider an excessive number of juvenile defendants who were tried as adults. Eddins concedes it’s a “legitimate observation.”
“I transferred many juveniles that were older that had committed violent crimes, and that had previous bad records, to adult court,” said Eddins. “I believe that the juvenile justice system does not adequately punish juvenile defendants that fit into the category I just described.”
Eddins reexamined their policies, and in some areas reduced the number of such transfers. That in turn led to a civil citation system for misdemeanor offenses in Escambia County, which he says is one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
“The juvenile civil citation system has really benefitted many, many juveniles that had no [criminal] record, and committed a low-end, or misdemeanor crime,” Eddins said. “And we were able to divert them and not make them convicted criminals.”
The Zen adage “nothing stays the same” very much applies to the prosecution of crimes. Over the past 16 years, Eddins has seen everything become more complex. Case in point: a sentencing guideline system aimed at equalizing sentences across Florida.
“But the guideline system really is not all that adequate in terms of making people with a serious record face serious time; so we’ve always tried to go above the guidelines in those types of cases – so that’s one big change,” said Eddins. “The other one is the aspects of the crimes, as our society has developed, has become more and more complicated.”
Eddins’s successor is Ginger Bowden Madden, who won the Republican primary last August and had no opposition in November. The daughter of former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, she has been working in the State Attorney’s office the past six months.
“She’s had free rein to evaluate the office during that period of time,” said Eddins. “She’s been involved in our budget discussions, she’s been involved in discussions involving major cases. I’ve asked her to take a fresh look at the office, particularly on the technology side.”
After turning in the keys today, next up for Bill Eddins will be some down time – which has been in short supply the past 16 years.
“I’m looking forward to really being outside; I’ve been inside as a trial lawyer 48 years,” Eddins said.” I grew up in the woods; I love the woods, I love nature. And my plan is to travel in a motor home some and bream fish, and to relax.”