Every lawyer has a case or two in the “What happened?” bag. Those are cases you were sure would win, but a jury did not share your conviction. It sometimes works the other way, too, giving an unforeseen windfall. Go to court long enough and the words “what happened?” will pass your lips. Guaranteed.
When a jury surprises you, the wisest course is silence. Bitter losers are unbearable; so are unseemly gloaters. What you don’t do is write a book about it and then blame the jury for getting it wrong.
Jeff Ashton, the lead prosecutor in the Casey Anthony case, has co-written a book with a published author, Lisa Pulitzer. Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, is Ashton’s tell-all about the case.
During the first couple of chapters, I found myself thinking I had found the answer to why the jury returned this seemingly improbable verdict: They simply didn’t like Ashton. The former prosecutor, now retired, is unsparing in his estimation of himself. He is brilliant, recognized as a master at presenting forensic evidence, a warrior’s warrior.
It’s hard to bang your own drum without deafening readers. Lord knows, I’ve offended plenty of folks who read what I write. When I sent a manuscript of mine to a couple of lawyers I respect and asked for reviews, I got glowing comments. I published those comments as the forward and introduction to the now-published book. It was considered poor form in some quarters. Alas.
Ashton did not inspire confidence by his glib off-handed references to his various divorces, and the children spawned by them. Neither did reports of his antagonisms with superiors in his office add to the story. Perhaps the third of his marriages is a charm. I don’t know. But simply reporting these couplings and uncouplings without mention of what, if anything, he learned from these failures only raises questions: Is Ashton the only person in the room who doesn’t realize people don’t like him?
But, hey, we’re all just tumbleweeds, right? We find our peace where we can and then huddle against the inevitable storms that always find their way to us. Ashton is a mere mortal. Got it.
What I didn’t get was his boasting about his great skill presenting forensic evidence. Mid-way through the book, we learn that he consulted an expert about the sorts of insects that are attracted to a corpse at various stages of decomposition. He referred to the expert not just once, but twice, as a “forensic etymologist.” Call me picayune, but there is a difference between the study of word origins and entomology.
Ashton also has unkind words for the jury he selected. They might not have been smart enough for a circumstantial case. They did not care enough about Caylee Anthony. Who selected the jury? Whose job was it to make them care? Who had the burden of proof and the resources of the State of Florida to prosecute this case?
I did not watch the Casey Anthony, and I followed it in press accounts only when it was near done, marveling most about how it came to be a high-profile sensation. What is it about some cases that transfix the broader public? What do we see of ourselves in the defendant that we so love to hate? I expected a verdict for the state based on what I read in the papers. There’s little doubt Casey was a liar and had plenty to hide: there’s little doubt Caylee died at the home Casey shared with her parents and daughter. The case was never a slam dunk for the state, but the quick defense verdict was a shocker.
I’d like to hear from the jurors about what they thought of the case. I recently read a volume entitled We the Jury, written by seven of the jurors in the Scott Peterson case. The book confirmed what I had long suspected. The trial that makes the record, as reported in the transcripts, or, more remotely, in press accounts, is but the tip of a larger iceberg. Jurors make credibility assessments based on the accumulation of the small, unguarded moments in trial. How does a lawyer behave? How does his client react to testimony? What body language do the participants convey? Determining whom to trust is largely an inchoate and unstated process. The lawyers matter, often in way they do not anticipate.
Say what you want about Jose Baez, the young lawyer with little courtroom experience who led the defense. Ashton has grudging respect for the man. Baez won; Ashton lost. Perhaps trial is less a manner of technique and method than it is of heart.
Imperfect Justice reads like a pathetic excuse. I will venture the following hypothesis: Ashton lost the case. Yes, he’s a big-league homicide prosecutor with all sorts of stuff to bang his chest about. But if his attempt to understand what went wrong in the Anthony case is any indication of how he tried the case, I’d say there are good odds he got in the way of his proof. We’re all guilty of it from time to time. We just don’t all write books about it.