Imperfect justice, p.1

  Imperfect Justice, p.1

Imperfect Justice

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Imperfect Justice



  Jeff Ashton with Lisa Pulitzer


  For Caylee, so that no one forgets




  Part I

  1. Joining the Team

  2. Twenty-four Hours

  3. Where Is Caylee Marie?

  4. Four Lies

  5. Caught

  6. Kidnapped or Murdered?

  7. Jailhouse Conversations

  8. Thirty-one Days


  Part II

  9. Dealing in Forensics

  10. Tracking Down Leads

  11. The Grand Jury

  12. Finding Caylee

  13. The Swamp

  14. Life or Death?

  15. Lying to Themselves

  16. Behind the Defense

  17. Order in the Court

  18. The Nuclear Lie

  Part III

  19. Jury Selection

  20. Searching for Truth

  21. Openings

  22. The Big Show

  23. Proving the Investigation

  24. Defending Casey

  25. The Prosecution Rests



  About the Authors



  About the Publisher


  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.

  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 ti

  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.

  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.




  The Daily News Café in Orlando is your typical lunch spot. Bustling, people shouting orders, good sandwiches—no matter the day, no matter the season, the counter is always packed and the food is always exactly what you need. Located on Magnolia Avenue just a block and a half from the courthouse, the Daily News has long been a staple for Orlando’s lawyers, and so perhaps it was fitting that my good friend and colleague at the State Attorney’s Office Linda Drane Burdick brought me there one hot day in August 2008 to talk about the case that currently had the entire legal community abuzz: the disappearance of a two-year-old girl named Caylee Marie Anthony.

  The Daily News Café was always crowded at lunchtime, so Linda and I ordered at the counter and went to find a table, where we began to talk about the details discovered to date. She was the chief of the sex crimes/child abuse unit, and as such, the Caylee Anthony case had been in her lap since the beginning. I, like everybody else in Orange County, Florida, had been following the story in the newspaper, and I knew the broad strokes, but there was a lot going on behind the scenes that I was unaware of.

  Linda had been contacted about the case on July 16, 2008, as a result of the child’s grandmother calling 911 to report Caylee missing. When the call came in, Caylee hadn’t been seen in thirty-one days. The child’s mother, Casey Anthony, told investigators that she had been working at Universal Studios, a local theme park, and Caylee had been staying with various friends and nannies, in particular a twenty-five-year-old woman named Zenaida Fernandez Gonzalez. According to Casey, she had dropped Caylee with the nanny on her way to work, but when she came back to get her, both of them were gone and the phone had been disconnected. She didn’t report her daughter missing, but claimed that she had been searching for her ever since. However, nothing Casey had told the police since the 911 call had proved true. As if the lies weren’t bad enough, there was forensic evidence from Casey’s car that pointed not only to foul play, but to Casey’s involvement.

  In my thirty years as a prosecutor, I’d taken seventy homicide cases to trial; all but two had returned guilty verdicts. I’d also prosecuted twelve capital murder cases and won convictions in all of them. My record was solid, but it was only one of the reasons Linda asked me to lunch that day. In many of those convictions, the innovative use of forensic evidence was where I’d distinguished myself. I had renowned expertise in scientific evidence, and Linda thought my perspective and experience might be helpful.

  As a prosecutor, I’ve always been interested in exploring how new scientific techniques could be used to convict guilty suspects. In 1987 I successfully prosecuted the first case in the world in which DNA evidence was used. A man by the name of Tommy Lee Andrews had climbed through a window and attacked a woman, slashing her with a box cutter and raping her repeatedly. Andrews left a fingerprint on the window screen where he’d entered the house, but since it was on the outside of the screen it was hard to connect it to the crime. To positively ID the attacker, DNA was collected from both semen in the rape kit and a sample of Andrews’s blood, and it matched. The jury accepted the new science and found him guilty, and the judge sentenced him to prison. It was the kind of forensic evidence that was truly novel in a criminal case, and that perspective was precisely what Linda needed.

  For weeks before our lunch, Linda had been hinting about my joining the prosecution team. I had mentored her since she’d joined the office in 1989. We had worked together on many cases in the past, including a cold case murder of a little girl that was solved by DNA. Linda was tough and intense, with a big heart. I called her the marshmallow hand grenade. Frank George, a ten-year veteran of the office, was already on board with her, but as this shaped up to be a homicide, Linda wanted me on the team, too. I was still the go-to man in forensics, and because the case against Casey Anthony was developing with only circumstantial evidence, forensics were going to be of critical importance.

  The forensics at the forefront that day in August had to do with a nasty odor and a nine-inch hair, both of which had been found in the trunk of Casey’s parents’ Pontiac Sunfire, the car Casey had been driving the last time she was seen with Caylee. A cadaver dog had alerted on the area and reacted strongly when the trunk had been opened. Despite Casey’s early story that Caylee had been kidnapped, it was beginning to look a lot like a homicide.

  Linda told me about the work of Dr. Arpad Vass, a forensic anthropologist who was doing cutting-edge research in decomposition odor analysis. Dr. Vass had examined some of the evidence from the trunk, and Linda wanted me to call him to discuss his findings and see if his science could be admissible. Linda was hoping to bring me into this case, and morsels of forensics like this surely piqued my interest.

  I was thrilled to be on Linda’s short list, but before either of us could begin to plan anything, office politics had to be negotiated. In 2002 I’d been made a supervisor, leading the juvenile division of the State Attorney’s Office. The assignment was supposed to have been a promotion, but I’d hated it. I missed trial work, and the following year I asked to return to the felony trial branch. Even though I had founded the homicide division in 1990, I was no longer a member of that department and could not move back. Instead, I was now tucked away in the trial division,
even though I had twenty-eight years of service, an unblemished record, and a near-perfect conviction rate. After some difficulties with my supervisors, I’d earned an unwarranted reprimand and been informed I was not a team player. I became an overpaid desk ornament, doing trials I was way overqualified for.

  Part of the problem was that there were two distinct camps in our office: those who wanted every case that came across our desks to go to trial and those who wanted to be more discriminating. Those who thought that whoever got arrested should get prosecuted didn’t like my vociferous objection to that policy. I was of the belief that we should choose the crimes that warranted prosecution and prosecute them appropriately, without buckling to public pressure. We shouldn’t just rubber stamp what the people who had the case before us had done; we needed to look at the merits of every case to determine if a crime had been committed before we prosecuted it. I honestly think that State Attorney Lamar Lawson, who headed our whole office, agreed with me, but the people below him supported the “prosecute all” philosophy.

  Maybe I was too abrasive in my conviction and rubbed those on the other side the wrong way. For whatever reason, my successful record as a prosecutor seemed to have been overshadowed by my beliefs. The political players in the office clearly wanted me buried, and so I was. Nevertheless, the 120 trial lawyers on staff still held me in the highest regard, and most important, one of those was Linda Drane Burdick.

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