Detailing the lengthy and emotional murder trial that held America's rapt attention, prosecutor Jeff Ashton writes in "Imperfect Justice" of his efforts to convict Casey Anthony. Here's an excerpt.
I hate the moment right before the verdict is read. It is my least favorite part of any trial, because someone in the room knows what the jury has decided and I don’t. Although I have tried more than three hundred cases in my thirty years as a prosecutor, that moment never loses its impact, and this time was no different. Sitting between my two co-counsels in Courtroom 23A of the Orange County Courthouse, all I could do was watch as the jury filed in to hand down the last verdict of my career: the guilt or innocence of Casey Anthony.
The seven women and five men had been deliberating only thirteen hours over the previous two days and had not asked to review any of the jailhouse recordings of Casey’s conversations with law enforcement or members of her family. It was very unusual for a jury, especially in a case like this, to fail to request something of the court. Even in minor cases, jurors customarily need clarification on legal issues important to the case. I never predict a jury verdict, but based on the quickness of their decision, I was confident that they would find the young mother guilty of first-degree murder, or manslaughter at the very least.
Prosecutors Linda Burdick and Frank George were seated on either side of me at the prosecutor’s table. We had been summoned back to the courtroom a little after 1 P.M. that Tuesday, July 5, 2011, with the announcement that the verdict was in. I had returned to my office from lunch and had been back only five minutes when I got the call to report to the courtroom. We all felt the trial had gone well, but we were glad to have it over with. The proceedings had taken their toll on everybody.
Jose Baez, the lead defense attorney, hadn’t arrived yet, but some of the other defense team lawyers were in their seats. Linda speculated that perhaps Baez was with Casey in the holding cell, which was in the basement of the twenty-three-story art deco courthouse in downtown Orlando. The judge had told the media that when there was a verdict, he would give them thirty minutes to be in their positions. Spectators who had waited hours the day before in the heat of a Florida summer to get one of the fifty gallery tickets were finally allowed into the air-conditioned comfort of the courthouse. They filed in to their assigned seats in time to see Baez arrive, wearing a brown suit and a paisley tie.
For my part, I was in a dark gray suit and one of my signature Jerry Garcia ties, which had become a hot topic in the media. Everything about this case was spun out and dissected by anyone who felt like weighing in. Despite the tragic death of a beautiful two-year-old girl, the story had become light, tawdry summer entertainment.
I may have been projecting, but when Casey arrived shortly thereafter, dressed like a schoolmarm, she looked grim and somber. In fact, her whole team looked unhappy. I hadn’t seen her parents, George and Cindy Anthony, slip quietly into the back row of the gallery, but they had been trying to keep a low profile.
As the jurors filed in, Linda told Frank to see which one was holding the verdict form, the clue to who the foreman was. Frank whispered that it was “the coach,” a juror originally from Pittsburgh who was a high school sports coach. Linda had particularly liked him during jury selection because the Pennsylvania city was her hometown. I knew the moment of reckoning was upon us as Judge Belvin Perry took his seat at the bench.
“I understand you have a verdict,” he said, addressing the jury foreman.
The coach handed the forms to the court deputy, who folded them in half and handed them to the judge. Years earlier, there had been times when we could see the verdict before it reached the bench. If the deputy was holding the forms a certain way, we could see which box was checked, “guilty” or “not guilty,” so the solution had been to fold the forms in half, prolonging those seconds of agony just a little bit more.
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As much as I dread the anxiety of that single moment, the courtroom is in my blood. I love being a prosecutor. I love the work, the gamesmanship, and the theatrics. I love every aspect of the trial, from the performance to the public speaking. There’s an aspect of a trial that is like being the director of a play. There is an art to the order and presentation of the witnesses, to the choice of the questions you ask, to understanding the effects the answers have on the jurors, and to interpreting the opposing counsel’s responses. Ultimately, your preproduction and your opening moves can influence the outcome of a case.
I’m drawn in to the theatrics, but I always approach a trial with a sense of angst, as each one is fraught with variables and uncertainty. Will the witnesses show up? Will they testify as expected? I spend hours running through my mind every possible twist and turn the evidence may take based upon what the witnesses may say, what the other side may do, or how the court may rule on evidentiary issues in trial. I would not say that I plan every moment of the trial, or that anyone could, but I do try to anticipate every possibility and plan a response. It is sort of like playing chess with live pieces that can move on their own, and rules that may or may not be followed. The only certainty in a trial is that nothing will ever go as planned.
But once the jury enters the courtroom for the opening arguments, all of that dread disappears, and my juices start to flow. I relish being present in a trial. I imagine it to be much like what an athlete goes through before a game. My entire focus is on one thing. I particularly enjoy going up against an experienced attorney in front of a judge who knows the law. Only then are my skills supremely tested. Our judges do not use gavels, so our trial sessions begin with a simple “Please rise for the jury,” our version of “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Having looked at these twelve jurors for as long as I had, I knew the futility of trying to guess their decision. I didn’t want to go through the mental gymnastics of trying to read their faces. Still, I was confident in the case we’d put together and how we’d presented it. My mind was ahead of the verdict, already planning how to work the dates for the penalty phase. I thought, with the first-degree murder conviction, we could start the arguments on Thursday. That would give the defense thirty-six hours to prepare their mitigating factors. With the death penalty on the table, they might need more time.
Judge Perry’s face gave away nothing, although he seemed a little aggressive with the verdict forms. There were nine pages altogether, seven for each of the seven counts and two for special findings, in the event the jury found Casey guilty. He made an unusual gesture with the third page. After he laid it down, he picked it back up to review it one more time and then put it down hard when he returned it to the pile. I didn’t think much of it. I just wanted to hear the verdict. To me, in light of the brevity of the deliberations and the weeks of testimony, the outcome was obvious. It had to be guilty.
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At that moment, Judge Perry handed the verdict forms to the clerk and asked the defendant to rise. I didn’t give Casey much notice, staring instead at the clerk. I always try to read the clerk’s body language and eyes to detect how far down the page she is reading. “Guilty” is always the choice at the top of the page, with “not guilty” the lowest. This time, her eyes dropped down the whole page, not a good sign.
“As to Count One, murder in the first degree, we find the defendant not guilty,” she said.
I was stunned, numb, like the feeling a millisecond after an automobile accident when intellectually you know something just happened, but emotionally it’s too surreal to comprehend. When I heard “not guilty” on the second count, aggravated child abuse, I knew it was over. Count Three, aggravated manslaughter, was going to be “not guilty” as well. If the jury didn’t believe Casey had committed even child abuse, they were not going to find her guilty of anything.
I could feel myself mouthing the word of disbelief, physically moving my lips and saying it, but not out loud. I stifled the urge to shake my head, even though that was what my body wanted to do. I did not want to demonstrate either approval or disapproval to the jury. To me, one of the most sacred rules of attorney decorum and respect is that you never demonstrate approval or disapproval of a jury’s verdict.
If there were gasps in the courtroom, I didn’t hear them. I don’t even remember hearing the guilty verdicts on the misdemeanor counts. I am not even sure if I heard the “not guilty” verdict on Count Three. Linda, Frank, and I all just sat there. I knew that Linda would be an absolute iceberg. She was the consummate professional and kept her emotions to herself. I was completely in my own head.
I knew what was happening, but I don’t remember processing it. It might be egotistical, but it never occurred to me that all twelve of those jurors, in that amount of time, could have rejected all that evidence. It had always been in our minds that they could find Casey guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter, but a complete “not guilty”? That was shocking.
Reprinted from "Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony" by Jeff Ashton with Lisa Pulitzer © 2011 by Jeff Ashton. Used with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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