Jeff Ashton became internationally famous as one of the Orlando area prosecutors who tried — and lost — the murder case against Casey Anthony.
What might not be so well known to Tampa Bay area residents is that Ashton grew up in St. Petersburg. And that this month he rebounded from defeat in the courtroom to victory at the polls. He was elected state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, defeating his longtime boss Lawson Lamar.
Ashton, 54, graduated from Boca Ciega High School and what was then called St. Petersburg Junior College before going to the University of Florida for his bachelor's and law degrees. His mother and three sisters still live in the Tampa Bay area.
Ashton recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about growing up in this area, his surprise about the Anthony verdict and working in the spotlight.
What are some of your memories about growing up in St. Petersburg?
Going to the beach. We used to go to Pass-a-Grille Beach all the time … water-skiing with friends on Treasure Island out on the little fingers. Going to the mall, Tyrone Square Mall, that was kind of a place that we hung out most of the time. … I was in drama club at Boca Ciega High School. Angela Bassett, who went on to be an incredible actress, was in drama club with me back in '75. She was a year younger than me.
What was your reaction when you were asked to join the Casey Anthony prosecution?
I was thrilled. It's a fascinating case. … At the time I was asked to join, (Caylee's) body had not been found yet. So I was kind of asked to get into it to handle a lot of the novel scientific stuff that was based on what was in the car. And then of course when her body was found, that involvement kind of tripled in size because we had all the forensic evidence from the remains. … It was a great case. It had so many fascinating aspects to it, and it was very challenging in every way.
Was there ever any doubt in your mind about Casey Anthony's guilt?
Not in mine, no.
What was the media glare like?
The media glare even in the beginning was pretty insane. There was a lot of hostility toward the entire family in the beginning which was, I thought, pretty much out of whack. … I'll never forget this shot I saw on TV of some woman with a little girl that looked like she was maybe 2 or 3 out in front of the Anthonys' and the mother was screaming at the house and the little girl was holding a sign that said something like, "Would you kill me?" And I just remember that was so disgusting.
During the trial, did you think it was going well for the prosecution?
I'd love to lie and say that I was smarter and saw what was coming, but I didn't. I didn't necessarily think that she would be convicted of first-degree murder … but I never thought that 12 people would agree to acquit her entirely. I didn't see that, no.
What was the emotional impact on you of the verdict?
I always liken it to that split-second when you have an automobile accident, that split-second between intellectually realizing it happened but emotionally not really accepting it yet. Where you kind of go, "That didn't just happen, did it?"
In your book Imperfect Justice you say, "My worst fears from jury selection manifested themselves in the verdict. This jury needed someone to tell them exactly how Caylee died. Piecing it together from circumstantial evidence was not good enough for them." So did those jurors from Pinellas County do their job?
The way I've always phrased it is, I believe they did what they thought was right. I may disagree with that, but I don't believe that they thought they were doing anything other than that.
If you could talk to jurors and it was appropriate to do so, what would you ask?
The only thing that I would be curious about, because none of them has ever commented on it, I would just like to know whether they thought Caylee's body was actually in the trunk. Because we spent a great deal of forensic evidence and time on that issue.
When you decided to run for state attorney against your former boss, Lawson Lamar, how big an underdog were you?
I would say nobody thought I had a snowball's chance in hell … when we started actually doing polling, we started seeing that, you know what, name recognition is huge. I think the Anthony case sort of put me on an equal footing with him. His 30 years of name recognition I think was equaled by my one year of name recognition. In the end it allowed people to compare us side by side.