ORLANDO – Looking back at perhaps the most high profile criminal case in Orlando’s recent history, prosecutor Jeff Ashton said he knows the Casey Anthony murder trial will get scrutinized for years, even decades, because people still ask him if there was any one thing he could change, what would it be.
“People ask me that in every interview,” Ashton said. “The only thing I really wish we could change was the evidence we could get from Cindy Anthony.”
Cindy Anthony is the mother of Casey Anthony, who was tried for the first degree murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee. The trial lasted six weeks, from May to July this year. On July 5, the jury found Casey not guilty of murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child. She was convicted of four misdemeanor counts of lying to police officers. With credit for time served, she was released from the Orange County jail on July 17.
When the verdict was announced, it was met with a wave of public outrage. But when Ashton made an appearance at the Orlando Public Library on Monday evening, the crowd that turned out to hear him was so large that it became standing room only. Library staff had to clear away tables next to the library’s Gift & Greetings Shop just to bring in more chairs to accommodate everyone, and when Ashton walked onto the stage, he was greeted with thunderous applause. If there was any sense that people felt the prosecution had made mistakes that cost them a conviction, there was no indication of it from the audience.
Ashton was there to promote his new book about the case, “Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony,” which was released on Tuesday, Nov. 15. As soon as she heard about the book, Kris Woodson, the library’s programs and promotions development manager, quickly signed up Ashton to talk about it to the library’s patrons.
“We still have copies of the book available in our Gift & Greetings Shop,” Woodson said.
Ashton was introduced to the huge audience by Lisa Sharkey, senior vice president and director of creative development for Harper Collins, the book’s publisher.
“We know this is such an important case here in Orlando, and when we signed Jeff up, we knew it was very important for him to write it quickly while it was still fresh in his mind,” Sharkey said. “We’re very proud of the way the book turned out. We think Jeff did a tremendous job.”
Ashton, now a retired prosecutor, only spoke for a few minutes before opening up the program to questions from the audience. That was appropriate, Sharkey said, because they had received quite a few.
“We have a stack of questions to go through,” she said. “He’d rather tell you what you clearly want to hear.”
Ashton opened with a joke, noting the size of the audience that had turned out to hear him, and reminding everyone that he’s more used to addressing jurors.
“I’m accustomed to speaking in front of groups of 12,” he said.
Working on the high profile case, held at the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando, was at times very emotionally difficult, Ashton said, while at the same time his legal team felt a strong passion about what they were doing.
“Obviously, this trial was a great deal of trauma to a lot of people,” he said. “This trial was all-consuming.”
But the prosecution was truly committed to finding justice for Caylee, he said, even if they were ultimately disappointed with the jury’s verdict.
“The trial was very much a labor of love for all of us,” Ashton said. “For us, it was a fascinating case. One of the things I tried to do in the book is not just give you the facts, because most of you already know the facts.”
Although Ashton has hoped to convince a jury to convict Casey Anthony of first degree murder, he defended the criminal justice system, and said it works.
“As imperfect as it may be, our system is the best that can be,” Ashton said.
In retrospect, Ashton said, it’s hard to figure out what he could have done differently, though he said Cindy Anthony’s strong defense of her daughter made their task more difficult.
“I understand the jury saw this very good mother,” he said, and that probably impacted their decision in some ways.
“That’s one of the good and bad things about our criminal justice system, that jurors are able to make those decisions based on personal feelings and their backgrounds,” he said.
The trial was also challenging, he said, because so much complex forensic evidence was introduced.
“The scientific evidence is difficult for people to comprehend sometimes,” he said. “I learned a lot from this case in the scientific area. You do your best and hope people understand it.”
One member of the audience asked Ashton if he thought Casey Anthony had swayed the jury because she’s young and pretty.
“That’s a tough one,” he said. “I don’t know. You cannot overlook the importance of appearance and the importance of impression. I remember one hysterical moment, she didn’t like what Jose (Baez, the lead defense attorney) was doing, so she was hitting him on the arm. She was doing what I couldn’t.”
Another member of the audience asked if the verdict might have come in differently if the prosecution had charged Casey Anthony with second-degree, rather than first-degree, murder.
“You have to charge what your evidence seems to indicate,” Ashton said. “At that time, of course, we didn’t have a body. We had a vehicle and evidence that a body was in the vehicle, and there was chloroform in the vehicle. When you put it all together, it points to a deliberate murder or an accidental murder. There really wasn’t a scenario that sounded like second-degree murder that we felt we could go forward with.”
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