OTR Interviews

Casey Anthony Prosecutor: 'We Presented Every Shred of Evidence We Could'

Lead prosecutor in Casey Anthony case reflects on not guilty murder verdict, the evidence, the contentious trial and his retirement

 

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," July 7, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: The unanimous verdict had many people gasping, especially the prosecution. The prosecutors argued that little Caylee was suffocated with duct tape by her mother, Casey, and that she lied to the police to cover up her crime. But after 11 hours of deliberations, the jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable.

So what happened? And was the prosecution prepared for Casey Anthony to testify? We asked prosecutor Jeff Ashton. Earlier today, he took us behind the scenes of the trial.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Jeff, thank you for joining us.

JEFF ASHTON, CASEY ANTHONY PROSECUTOR: My pleasure.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Jeff, I've won cases and I've lost cases. So it's not -- it's tough to lose a case even when you should lose a case, isn't it.

ASHTON: It is. It is difficult to put that much time and energy into something. It's tough.

VAN SUSTEREN: I don't think people realize is that it's around-the- clock work. You know, even when you're driving home, you're thinking about it. You're working until midnight. You're working weekends. They only see the trial, but they never see the build-up. And it's extraordinarily hard work. And actually, I'll tell you, I think it's noble work, noble for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

ASHTON: Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: So even though you have some disappointment, I think you ought to be proud of the hard work you and your office did.

ASHTON: Oh, we're very proud of everything we did, yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, in looking at the case and dissecting it -- I mean, we have the pleasure of being on the sidelines and looking at it. I'm curious, if the remains had been found in August, did any of your experts say that they would have been any more powerful or more potent position to give you an opinion as to the cause of death?

ASHTON: Most of the experts have told us that in all likelihood -- pardon me -- by the beginning of July, the body was completely skeletonized. So there might have been some difference in the evidence, but essentially, her body was in the form that we saw it in December all the way back in, like, late July, August. So it would have still been a skeleton at that point.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about just in terms of, you know, the placement of the duct tape? I mean, was that in any way moved by the elements, by the water retreating, by the sun, by even animals, anything like that? Because it seemed to me that that cause of death was so critical to your case.

ASHTON: It's possible. I mean, we don't really know. There was a huge tropical storm that came in late August, Tropical Storm Fay, which from all accounts completely flooded the entire area. So it might have been in better circumstance then, though even in -- on August the 11th, Roy Kronk's original statement was that the area was under water somewhat. But certainly, two weeks after that, it was completely flooded. So you never know.

VAN SUSTEREN: Casey Anthony didn't testify. And I guess it's not a huge surprise. But were you ready for her testimony? Did you expect that she might?

ASHTON: We did. I think after the opening statement, we expected her to. As the trial wore on, we became more and more convinced that she wouldn't. But Linda Burdick, who was lead counsel, was prepared to cross- examine her and so very effectively. Of course, she just never got the chance.

VAN SUSTEREN: In terms of the opening statement of Jose Baez -- he talked about -- he made the allegation against George Anthony, which he's denied, about abuse, sexual abuse, as well as Lee, the brother. Was there ever any evidence -- not impeachment evidence, but any substantive evidence, which you may have disagreed with, to support that?

ASHTON: No. The only evidence on that issue in any way was some statements that Casey had made to boyfriends about Lee perhaps touching her inappropriately. But that was it. There was nothing about George at all to suggest that George had done anything to her.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, I don't know whether it happened or it didn't happen, but I'm curious if that had in any way was -- had any sort of substantive value. Let's assume that it happened. Did that in any way have any impact on whether this was a murder, not a murder, whether she did or not? Was it totally collateral?

ASHTON: My opinion, it was totally collateral. It really didn't -- it didn't tend to explain her conduct after Caylee died. In my opinion, it didn't explain anything. But since it didn't come into evidence, it was even less helpful.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you get any instruction? Did you ask the judge to instruct in any way that what Jose Baez said in opening statement about the abuse -- there'd been no substantive evidence to prove it and that it was collateral to the issue of the charge to the indictment?

ASHTON: Well, the judge had made a ruling before closing arguments, basically, on his own motion, saying that the defense would not be permitted to argue that because there had been no evidence of it. Obviously, there's standard instruction that what the attorneys say isn't evidence, and we relied on that to get the jury, you know, basically, to disregard that.

Obviously, it would not be proper for us to bring it up, since the judge said they couldn't. So that was how that was handled by the judge.

VAN SUSTEREN: Before George and Cindy Anthony took the witness stand -- and they may in some way be perceived as what we call a hostile witness -- meaning a witness for the other side because it's their daughter who's on trial -- did you work with them at all?

ASHTON: We met with both George and Cindy before they testified, as we do with most witnesses, to go through what they were going to be asked, prepare them for the various things, prepare George for the allegations against him and how he would be able to respond to those. So yes, we did that with them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was it difficult -- I mean, it's sort of curious -- I mean, like, what an extraordinary dynamic. You know, it's their granddaughter who's missing, murdered, whatever, and their daughter is on trial, facing the possibility the state will execute her. I'm trying to think of, you know, what it's like working with the parents.

ASHTON: It was -- over the three-year period, it changed from time to time. There were times when both George and Cindy were not very cooperative with us, though, you know, not to the point of refusing to testify or anything of that sort, just sort of emotionally difficult.

I think, though, when they learned of the allegations against George that, you know, they were a little more willing to talk to us, but still were emotionally torn between, you know, their daughter and their granddaughter.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: This is a "Fox News Alert." Casey Anthony will not be leaving her jail cell next Wednesday, July 13th, as was announced in court earlier today. The date was just changed moments ago. Casey is now scheduled to leave the Orange County jail on Sunday, July 17th. The public information officer for the jail released this statement, saying in part, "After receiving the signed order this afternoon on the sentencing of Casey Marie Anthony, Orange County Corrections conducted a detailed recalculation of the projected release date. The projected release date is now Sunday, July 17th, 2011."

And coming up, there's so much more of our interview with prosecutor Jeff Ashton. Jeff Ashton talks about Casey Anthony, what he says Casey was doing in the courtroom that the cameras didn't catch, and the real reason why he thinks Casey doesn't like him very much. That's next.

Also, we saw the courtroom tears, both George and Cindy Anthony taking the witness stand, testifying for the state and for the defense. But did they help win their daughter's freedom? We ask our legal panel straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: This is a Fox News alert. Casey Anthony's release date from jail was just changed moments ago. She will not be leaving next Wednesday, July 13, as was announced earlier today in the Orlando courtroom. Casey is now scheduled to leave the Orange County jail Sunday, July 17th. Keep it right here on Fox News Channel for any other further developments in this case.

And how here's more of our interview with prosecutor Jeff Ashton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you ever have a conversation with Casey during your -- I know that you have discovery in Florida, which is unusual in a criminal case. We are not used to it in every other state. But did you ever have any interaction with Casey?

ASHTON: No, that would never be permitted in a criminal case in Florida either.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did she appear at the depositions or not?

ASHTON: No. Generally defendants don't. By our rule defendants are not entitled to attend depositions, particularly not when they in jail.

VAN SUSTEREN: So you never even passed her a glass of water or had any interaction with her at all?

ASHTON: No. She attempted to, oddly enough, engage Linda in conversation one day during the trial. And Linda just appropriately said I can't talk to you because it wouldn't be appropriate to do that. That was the -- Casey I don't think likes me very much. So I wasn't expecting a chitchat with her.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you think that?

ASHTON: I don't know. I guess probably because I was the one early in the case who made a particular argument about request the death penalty might be appropriate that she didn't like. So I kind of thought I did. I'm sure generally prosecuting her was not her favorite thing for me to do.

VAN SUSTEREN: In the event this would have been guilty verdict on the murder one, we would have gone into the death penalty phase. Were you going to be the prosecutor to ask to have her executed?

ASHTON: Well, yes, I would have -- the death penalty part was part of my part of the case. So, yes, I would have been the person that did the penalty phase argument and handled most of the witnesses in that phase.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you do that? I'm always curious, because that is the ultimate penalty.

ASHTON: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I'm wondering, especially this is a young woman. I realize there's a dead child. I realize all the elements. But how do you brace yourself to do that? Or is it something that comes rather easy for you?

ASHTON: I've done it a couple dozen times in my career. In some cases you argue aggressively in favor of a particular penalty. In other cases you argue what the aggravators are and essentially let the jury decide. In this case our position, the state attorney's position in the case, was that this was a case that the jury needed to decide, not us. And that was what we said from the beginning and throughout is that whatever penalty the jury found, if we got there, which we didn't, was up to them.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you make the decision which case you are going to seek the death penalty? I mean, what goes into your consideration?

ASHTON: That ultimately is the state attorney's decision, based upon advice from his assistants, us. And that decision is for him to speak about or not speak about. I've always just declined to talk about that because that is his decision to talk about or not.

VAN SUSTEREN: I've got in a lot of trouble with judges over my career, too. But you got in a little trouble for smirking or smiling. Believe me, I've been yelled at, told to sit down, and I've done things. But tell me, what happened there?

ASHTON: Basically, it was the end of a six week trial. And as you said, everybody is exhausted. And Jose's performance was just - it amused me. Unfortunately I let that out by smiling. I shouldn't have. But sometimes it is hard not to smile when something amuses you.

VAN SUSTEREN: I talk to a lot of lawyers down there and they have a lot of respect for you.

ASHTON: Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: So I'm curious, why are you hanging it up? I realize it has been 30 years. You must love it and must have mixed emotions about this?

ASHTON: I do. I do. I do love it. I love prosecuting cases. I've been doing it over 30 years. I stayed to finish this case. It was just time for me to move on.

Part of it was simply that this case had everything that a prosecutor could want to have in a case to challenge him. It was so challenging. And every case after this would have been less of a challenge. And I guess I was ready for something new.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have something new planned? What are you going to do?

ASHTON: Don't know. I'm kind of going to go home try and take my family to the beach or maybe on a cruise and spend time with them that I want able to spend the last two months and just relax and figure it out from there.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have you figured out why this case got so much attention? Because regrettably there's so many horrible murders and horrible deaths across this country and missing children. Why this one?

ASHTON: I think part of this one was though there had been other child murder cases in the past, I think the 31 days just captured people's imagination. And they just wanted to try and find out some explanation for what seemed so inexplicable. I think that's part of what captured it. It was just they wanted to find the truth of that issue, and never really did.

VAN SUSTEREN: Whenever I tried a case I lost, I was always doing the postmortem in my mind for days and weeks afterwards. Doing the postmortem, is there any sort of strategy you wished you would have employed or not employed?

ASHTON: No. In this case I honestly think that we presented every shred of evidence that we could in the best manner we could. We got all the evidence in that we should have gotten in. And ultimately if that wasn't enough for the jury we sleep well knowing that we did a good job. And I think that Linda, and the entire office and the investigators did a fabulous job in this case. And if it wasn't good enough for the jury, then so be it.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you know what, I think you all should sleep well because as a bystander -- it's a lot easier to be the bystander -- I saw the most difficult parts is not being able to establish once accident was injected into the case as to the cause of death, the murder. And that of course is the jury's determination. But I think you all should sleep well. The jury didn't say she was innocent. They said that they weren't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a big difference, as you and I both know.

ASHTON: Absolutely.

VAN SUSTEREN: Congratulations to a hard fought case and good work and good luck in whatever you do.

ASHTON: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)