The Prosecution Can't Rest
In Imperfect Justice, Jeff Ashton relives the ordeal of bringing Casey Anthony to trial and tangling with a defense attorney whom he didn’t trust.
After the Casey Anthony trial ended, Jeff Ashton retired from the local state attorney’s office and wrote a book about the high-profile murder case.
Photo By Norma Lopez Molina
When Casey Anthony went on trial beginning in May, Jeff Ashton and his two fellow prosecutors seemed to be holding all the cards—and they were face cards at that—in the state’s capital murder case against the accused child killer. The defendant was a habitual liar, and her party girl behavior during a 31-day period that her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee Marie, was never seen strongly pointed to guilt.
Ashton’s role as a co-prosecutor was to introduce the state’s forensic evidence and challenge the defense’s expert witnesses who presented alternate theories. Battling a defense that attempted to rationalize Anthony’s lies and offered no solid evidence to support its theories for Caylee’s death and the disposal of her body, Ashton often could been seen in the live broadcasts from Judge Belvin Perry’s courtroom telegraphing how he felt about a defense witness’ testimony or the arguments espoused by the opposing lead counsel, Jose Baez. As the trial neared its end, Ashton let his emotions get the better of him, smirking as Baez gave his closing arguments in front of the jury. It was another dramatic moment in a seven-week trial filled with drama.
The jury took only 11 hours to find Anthony not guilty of all charges stemming from her daughter’s death in 2008. Anthony was convicted of four lesser charges of lying to law enforcement.
Ashton immediately retired after 30 years with the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office, as he had planned to do when the trial ended. He then did what anyone involved in such a high-profile murder trial would do: talk about it on national TV and write a book about it. Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony (William Morrow) is the first book written by someone with inside knowledge of the case. Written with former New York Times correspondent Lisa Pulitzer, it was scheduled to go on sale Nov. 15.
Sporting a post-trial goatee and wearing a very lawyerly black suit accessorized with one of his trademark Jerry Garcia ties, Ashton, 54, meets with me at the Maitland law office where he works part-time as a consultant. No sooner do we enter a conference room than he opens a small white box and pulls out a business card. He mentions that his former employer rarely provided business cards. He’s talkative, but only when replying to a question. Our small talk lasts only a few minutes before and after the Q&A; Ashton doesn’t seem like the chit-chat type. Still, he easily offers that he has taken up golf and is busy remodeling a bathroom at the east Winter Park home he and his wife share with their two children, ages 8 and 7. After he’s done promoting the book, he sees himself settling into private practice, possibly even defending the kind of suspected criminals he fought to put behind bars, or to death.
At 324 pages, Imperfect Justice is more tick-tock than page-turner, with Ashton recounting the saga from start to finish. The book offers a few revelations about the case, but if Ashton has any behind-the-scenes dirt on anyone involved in the three-year legal drama other than Baez he’s either keeping it to himself or saving it for the screenplay.
The book’s title implies justice, like human beings, isn’t perfect. But if there is a deeper meaning to Ashton’s tale it’s that justice relegated a little girl named Caylee to a footnote in the case. That’s an injustice he reminds us of in Imperfect Justice.
Orlando magazine: You were a local prosecutor for 30 years, trying some 70 homicide cases and winning all 12 of your capital murder trials .Leaving the state attorney’s office on a low note—the acquittal of Casey Anthony—has to hurt.
Jeff Ashton: [Sighs.] Obviously, I would have preferred a verdict different than it was. But it was an appropriate last case for me for that part of my career because of the complexity of it. Win, lose or draw, it was one of the most amazing forensic cases that I have ever been involved in. You think it would be more of a down note, but it really isn’t because it was such a fascinating case from a professional perspective. But it would have been nicer had it ended differently.
OM: Let’s talk about Imperfect Justice. I have to tell you, the title doesn’t leap off the bookshelves.
OM:Your book seems to say there was no justice at all for Caylee, so what does “imperfect” refer to?
JA: What the title means is that the system that we have, and kind of what I’m trying to say in the book, works the way it was intended to work. All the evidence that was intended to get to the jury got there. The jury got all the instruction they were supposed to get. Everything worked the way it was supposed to work. The problem was, in my opinion, and this was expressed in the book, is that there was so much pretrial publicity. The amount of pretrial information that was released to the public—by virtue of Florida law it had to be released—was something that made it very difficult for us to get a jury. Our entire case was out there in the media. People who were interested in it had read it. So what you ended up doing was essentially losing most of the jurors that you would normally want in a case like this. So that’s what I’m of kind of suggesting in the title, that even though our system of justice is one of the best you could imagine, it’s not always perfect and it’s always subject to reconsideration, to improvement. I just want people to know that this was not a case where anybody didn’t do their job. The prosecutors did their job. The defense attorneys did their job. The jury, I assume and I do believe, did what they thought was right. The question is how does the system end up with a verdict that is so different than what so many people thought it should be? The idea is there are some things in the system that could be improved and justice is imperfect.
OM: Do you have any ideas what those improvements could be?
JA: The biggest one I suggested in the book that I think needs to be reconsidered is this liberal release of documents to the public pretrial. I really think we need to have a discussion about whether society is better off with this completely free and open exchange of information. Or if society is not better off if some information is withheld until the trial itself. A trial is a way of presenting information to a jury that’s filtered in order to limit the jury’s consideration to things that are actually reliable, relevant and important. I just think that when we release every bit of information to the press, what happens is people read volumes and volumes of information, and from that they believe they know the case. And from that they come to opinions that are very strongly held and that then disqualifies them from being on the jury. So all of these people who are outraged by the verdict because they know so much about [the case] could never have been on the jury. And those are exactly the people that we would have needed to be on the jury—people who care, people who put the pieces together the way we do. So I think we just need to rethink whether that is how we want things to be. Or is it better to make people wait until the trial to find what the case is actually about?
OM: Let me read something from your book pertaining to the jury: “Could we get a jury with a modicum of intelligence that could see through the bombast and the lies?” Did you get that jury?
JA: I don’t want to comment on the jury’s intelligence. I don’t believe we got a jury that was able to see through the bombast and the lies. Obviously, our belief was that Casey had told lie after lie after lie. And we argued to the jury and tried to prepare them for the next lie, which was the drowning story. . . . We were not able to do that.
OM: But in the book you were somewhat critical of their intelligence. You felt like you got a group of dolts. They were more
interested in their DVD selections than looking at evidence during the deliberations.
JA: Well, that fact did concern me, and I think it’s a fair thing for people to discuss—what was the focus of the jury? What was important to them? How much time did they spend on deliberations? [Less than 11 hours.] But the one thing I don’t want people to do is to express their personal feelings to jurors directly. My biggest concern is that we create a circumstance where jurors are afraid to do what they think is right. I don’t for a moment think this jury did not do what they thought was right. . . . They don’t deserve to be condemned for this verdict. . . . It does appear that they followed the law as they saw it.
OM: Do you believe there is a bombshell in the book, that “Oh, my God!” revelation the public didn’t know about?
JA: There are a number of them. The biggest one is what Casey’s actual story was. The defense in opening [arguments] tried to sell the jury this story of an accident. But the biggest thing we know in the book is Casey’s belief that it was not an accident; that in fact she would have agreed with us that Caylee was murdered. But her position is that [her father] George did it. That’s not what was argued to the jury. To me, that’s the most interesting thing people will find in the book.
OM:There were moments during the trial that Cindy Anthony and her son, Lee, appeared to be stonewalling the prosecution. You remarked in your book that they had chosen Casey over Caylee. Do you believe they actually helped Casey’s case?
JA: I believe they intended to help Casey’s case. I think Lee probably did by sort of giving the jury a little more substance to this dysfunctional family myth. I honestly don’t think that Cindy—and, again, we don’t know what the jury thought—claiming the chloroform searches actually helped because it was pretty clearly refuted by her work records, and ultimately from the few jury comments we’ve seen, it doesn’t sound like the chloroform was discussed any at all. . . . The biggest thing that I think hurt us was Cindy’s either unwillingness or inability to face up to Casey and her relationship with Casey. There was a whole lot of information we got from friends and co-workers of Cindy’s that painted a picture of the relationship between Casey and Cindy that was very different than the one Cindy painted in her testimony. I really believe that had Cindy been able to be more candid about Casey and their relationship and problems that it might have given the jury a better picture of the family dynamic. Would it have made a difference? No one can ever know.
OM: Well, do you think their testimonies—when Lee gave that story about being kept out of his sister’s pregnancy ordeal and he cried about that, and Cindy’s testimony about the chloroform searches, saying she may have done them—could they have helped substantiate the defense’s claim that lying and dysfunction were part of the family dynamic?
JA: The jury might have seen it that way, yeah. That’s kind of a double-edged sword: On the one hand, if they’re lying, they’re lying for Casey. You would think normally that would induce a jury to say, well, they must think she did it, that’s why they’re lying for her. It may have played in that dynamic of dysfunction that was never proven, but who knows how the jury took that? I thought Lee’s—and I will use my word—“performance’’ on the issue of the pregnancy and his involvement with it; his deposition where he discussed the same facts was very nonchalant, very matter of fact, no emotion. He expressed it as, “I really wasn’t that concerned.’’ And to then turn it around into some great emotional issue, I thought was a pretty interesting act.
OM: You were not very kind at all in your book to Jose Baez. On pages 187 and 189, you describe him as a slimy character. He was inept and unethical in your view. Would you have been kinder to him had you won the case?
JA: No. I was that unkind to him during the trial. All of the issues between us are in the trial record—my complaints about his refusal to comply with the judge’s orders is in the record of the trial; my concerns about the veracity of the things he’s saying are in the trial record. So, win, lose or draw, Jose Baez did what he did. . . . I don’t feel we did a bad job because the verdict was “not guilty.” By the same token, what he did wrong doesn’t become right because of the verdict. Nothing would be different, no.
OM: You can have professional disagreements with somebody and respectfully disagree. . .
OM: With Jose Baez it’s very personal, though.
JA: I’ve had 300 trials in my career; 70 murder cases, and most of them were hard fought. Some of them were very hard fought. There are some attorneys in town who could tell stories of pitched battles I have had with them. But in the end you walk outside the courtroom and you can still be professional and cordial. The one thing that changes that is trust. I think most lawyers will tell you that the one thing that is hard to walk away and forget is when someone has not been truthful with you. There are a number of occasions I documented in the book where I believe Mr. Baez was deliberately untruthful with both myself and the court. That’s not something I’m willing to forgive.
OM: So does it burn in your belly that a lawyer you have such low regard for beat you?
JA: I don’t see it as me beating him or him beating me. I think this is only the third murder case I’ve ever lost out of 70 or 80. I didn’t think of myself as beating any of those other lawyers. The facts win and lose cases. The outcome of the case has nothing to do with my feelings about him. He is the kind of person he is. No lawyer’s career is made up of one case. Mr. Baez will have a long career, and over that long career he will either become a more ethical and professional lawyer and have the reputation of that or he won’t. The career will determine that, not one case.
OM: This was definitely a career-maker for him, wasn’t it?
JA: We’ll see. It could be be. There’s the 15 minutes of fame theory: Everybody gets 15 minutes. What you do with it is what makes a difference. He’s not going to have the Casey Anthony jury in every case in the future.
OM: Your book reveals that as the trial date neared, Baez did inform the prosecution of his intention to portray Caylee’s death as an accidental drowning and also accuse George Anthony of molesting his daughter since childhood. You maintained that this story was Casey’s lie, another example of how she spins a new lie when its predecessor no longer works. You don’t think she had help in concocting that version of events?
JA: I would have no idea.
OM: When something like that comes up, and it’s fabulous, it’s such a fantastic story, do you feel like the defendant was the source of that story?
JA: It’s just got all the hallmarks of Casey in it. The one thing about Casey is that Casey is the most accomplished liar I have ever seen in 30 years, and I don’t say that for hyperbole. She is truly amazing. She is the Leonardo da Vinci of lies. There is nothing about this lie that would be above her ability to concoct. In fact, it’s very typical. She takes all the facts that are known and she concocts a story that seeks to account for all of them. The only facts that this story doesn’t account for are the two things she can’t account for—the tape on the skull and the chloroform. There is no fabrication that takes care of that. I have no idea where the story came from, but it has the hallmark of Casey all over it.
OM: There was an explosive moment while Baez gave his closing, with him calling you out for smiling while covering your mouth. He made the reference “This laughing guy right here’’ as he forcefully pointed at you, leading Judge Belvin Perry to stop the proceedings, remove the jury, and threaten to kick you and Baez out of the courtroom. Yet, in the book, the run-in gets only a few sentences, with no mention of the disruption it caused and Perry’s reaction. Seems like you downplayed it. Were you shielding yourself from ridicule, from considering the prospect that your behavior might have swayed the jury?
JA: No. I just talk about it for what it was. It was a moment in the trial. Baez was making an argument . . . and at that particular moment his voice went up like two octaves. I think it was a combination of the ridiculous argument and the comic quality of his voice at that moment. [My reaction] was inappropriate. I feel bad that I lost control of my mouth and smiled and smirked when I shouldn’t have. Did it affect the outcome of the case? Absolutely not. If this jury found her not guilty because of a smirk from a lawyer, then this jury did not do their job, and I have much more faith in these people than that. It was an amusing aspect of the case. I wish I hadn’t done it, but by the same token I am not feeling a huge amount of guilt over it. I am more concerned about it because I think it gave people the wrong impression of me. It wasn’t my proudest moment.
OM: Has your opinion of Judge Perry changed since the trial? You had a great deal of respect for him, as noted in your book, but you also expressed some frustrations with him for giving Baez a lot of leeway regarding his use of expert witnesses and for tolerating the counselor’s repeated violations of court-ordered rules of discovery.
JA: No, I have the utmost respect for Judge Perry, and that existed long before this trial and it will exist long after. He is one of the best jurists we have on the bench.
OM: The duct tape was your smoking gun, right?
JA: That was the smoking gun. In fact, to this day, no one has ever explained what that tape was doing [over Caylee’s mandible] if that tape wasn’t there to kill her. The defense never gave any alternate explanation for why the tape was there, other than the ridiculous [forensic anthropologist] Dr. [Werner] Spitz story about taking the skull home and putting the mandible on and taping it, which was ludicrous. Early on in this case I said if jurors look at that photograph of that skull with duct tape on it and don’t see what I see, then so be it. . . . Interestingly enough, in the limited interviews the jurors have given, none of them has talked about the duct tape. It would be fascinating to know what their take on it was. Why was that tape there? . . . To me, when you find a 2-year-old girl with duct tape over the area of what was her nose and mouth, to me that speaks volumes. It didn’t to the jury, and that’s their right to decide.
OM: Your book reveals that Cheney Mason was interested in making an eleventh-hour plea deal, with Casey accepting second-degree murder in exchange for a 30-year term. But Casey wouldn’t even consider it—she wouldn’t even talk about a plea with her lawyers—and that is what led to her competency evaluation. She was found competent, of course, and found not guilty on all counts [related to Caylee’s death]. Just how lucky was she?
JA: I think on many, many different levels Casey was lucky. Sometimes bad people have a guardian angel for some reason. Tropical Storm Fay was the best thing that ever happened to Casey. [It hit in August 2008, leaving standing water in the wooded area where Caylee’s remains were later found.] But for that, Caylee probably would have been found many, many months before she was. Casey is lucky that it took two weeks for the notice of the towing to get to Cindy and George. The car was towed on July 30. It took almost two weeks for them to get the [towing] notice and to see it and go and get the car. Had that happened a week earlier, what would have been different? Would they have been able to find [Casey]? There are all of these things that Casey couldn’t have possibly planned for. . . . She just got really lucky. Cindy waited 30 days. Cindy could have freaked out after two weeks, or after a week, and demanded to see Caylee and started the police then. It didn’t happen that way. There were a number of areas where Casey was very lucky.
OM: Was she lucky that she had, in particular, a mother who tended to enable her lies?
JA: Well, I think that is developed over years and years and years. There is the enabler and there is the person with the problem, and they sort of grow hand in hand. . . . I don’t think Casey could have become the liar she was without Cindy as sort of an enabler of that. There’s incidences that indicate George attempting to be the detective, and to pierce some of the lies, and Cindy fairly actively dissuading him from doing that. I think it’s a combination of all those things that created the person that Casey was and what she was able to do.
OM: You have grown children [from a previous marriage], don’t you?
JA: I do.
OM: How old is your oldest?
OM: So, if you had a child who was telling you they were at work, but never had any money and stole your gas, would a light bulb go off in your head? Wouldn’t you wonder, what’s going on here?
JA: I hope so. You want to trust your children and you don’t want to have to check up on them. But there is a point where for their benefit you have to not buy into every story you’re told. I’m sure I’ve committed that myself where I’ve been told things by my kids where I’ve should have gone, “Hey.” But I bought into it. But there is a point where you have to wake up to reality and see things for what they are.
OM: Would we have heard about Casey and Caylee Anthony had they been black?
JA: Yes, I think so. I hope people in the media are color blind.
. . . What becomes high publicity is really up to the media. I hope that in a similar circumstance, that if a young black mother had not reported her child missing for 31 days and done the things that Casey did, I have a feeling it probably would have been the same. Now, the interesting thing is if it had been a father, would it have been the same? That’s also fascinating. I just think the facts of this case, that are sort of capsulized in that 31 days, are what really capture people. For most people it’s just inexplicable why a mother, any mother, could have their child gone that long.
OM: Let me ask you about the rumor going around that you’re going to run for state attorney. Are you going to do it?
JA: I am not discussing that right now. Right now I’m concentrating on the book.
OM: I have to ask you this question about women considering you a heartthrob. Did you hear any of that?
JA: I did. I heard a little of that. It was kind of embarrassing.
OM: There were women who wanted to know if you were married. You don’t wear a ring.
JA: I lost my ring about a year and half ago in the backyard. I am married. It’s been a source of some consternation to my wife that I hadn’t had my ring. . . . I am happily married.
OM: If you found yourself standing in line, at, say, Starbucks with Casey Anthony in front of you, what would you say to her?
JA: I wouldn’t say anything to her.
OM: Not a word?
JA: Not a word. I would do what I have suggested to people, to anyone who asks: I would ignore her. And to anyone who asks how we should deal with Casey Anthony, my advice is ignore her. You see her on the street, ignore her. Ignore her, ignore her, pretend that she doesn’t exist.
OM: Are you over this case? Have you moved on?