07.12.12

Casey Anthony Prosecutor: Vote For Me!

He lost the case, but became an overnight celebrity. Now, the Florida lawyer is hoping for a win—this time as State Attorney. How a local prosecutor is using a national fan base to unseat a 24-year incumbent.

A year after Casey Anthony stunned the nation, walking free of charges that she murdered her 2-year-old daughter, the man who lost the case, attorney Jeff Ashton, has at least one good thing to say about Casey: She may help him get his next job.

Ashton became a household name prosecuting the 22-year-old murder suspect on national television. Thanks in part to that overnight celebrity—Rob Lowe is playing him in an upcoming Lifetime movie and his book, “Imperfect Justice,” was a New York Times bestseller—he now has a shot of becoming the next State Attorney for Florida’s Ninth Circuit. A prosecutor for 30 years who has called Anthony an “evil woman and speaks openly about his confidence in her guilt, Ashton says the case “has given people a reason to listen to me now.”

If Ashton, a Democrat, wins on August 14th, he would be ousting Lawson Lamar, the 24-year Democratic incumbent and his former boss, who has maligned his celebrity in the press. Alan Byrd, Lamar’s campaign manager, says Ashton’s “willingness to play politics with the death of a young girl is simply appalling.”

A local election in a district straddling Orange and Osceola Counties in Central Florida wouldn’t normally merit much attention north of the border. But here in the “gateway” to Disney World, 15 miles from Seminole County, where neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin earlier this year, there’s a growing sense that the people Americans vote for don’t just affect our economy or immigration or security, but also how—and whether—justice is meted out to the nation’s worst offenders. In the Zimmerman case, Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger came under fire when he didn’t initially prosecute Zimmerman, and he eventually handed over the case to another office. The Anthony and Zimmerman cases have caused a new “sense of injustice,” says Dan Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, causing people to look “more closely at who their state attorney is.”

Video screenshot

Casey Anthony gets her verdict.

It’s also here that the national debate over Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which says it’s okay to shoot someone if you feel you’re in mortal danger, was sparked, quickly becoming a political football. At a conference at the National Rifle Association in April, Mitt Romney said, “we need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters and sportsmen and those seeking to protect their homes and their families.”

Ashton has come out against Stand Your Ground, calling the 2005 self-defense clause an “unnecessary expansion” of a previous version of the law. “The old law discouraged people from resolving their disputes by violence,” Ashton says, “but now even if you could walk away you don’t have to.”

The Ashton-Lamar race has been infused with big city drama the office hasn’t seen for decades. Lamar has served since 1988, and ran unopposed until 2008. This time around, he had three opponents—though two dropped out recently, leaving Ashton as the sole contender—and the fundraising battles have been brutal. Though Lamar has so far raised $85,600, nearly twice as much as Ashton, the challenger has pulled in a remarkable number of out-of-state donors: 127 out of 402. Lamar, in comparison, has just one donor from outside Florida.

Joyce Wilson of Springfield, Massachusetts, says she gave $5 to Ashton after following the Anthony case “from beginning to end.” She says, “I have the highest regard for him. If I was living in Florida where he’s running, I would definitely be working for him.”

Campaign managers for Ashton and Lamar declined to say how the money is being spent. Ashton’s online merchandise store sells “Team Ashton” buttons. Other Ashton slogans include, “A Prosecutor Not A Politican” and “The C.S.I Prosecutor,” a nod to Ashton’s experience with convictions using DNA evidence. Lamar—“Leadership Counts”—has been pushing out Facebook ads.

Ashton, who is tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, has spent his life in Central Florida. Now 54, he studied philosophy at St. Petersburg College before transferring to University of Florida to study law. For the Casey Anthony case, he was part of a team of prosecutors led by Assistant State Attorney Linda Drane Burdick. Perhaps because of his courtroom antics—including laughing in the courtroom during Anthony’s defense team’s closing statements—he emerged from the media frenzy as the most recognizable face. He says he was caught off guard the first time someone in Orlando asked to take a picture with him during the Anthony trial—“it seemed so strange,” he says.

Once, on a Cub Scout campout with one of his sons, another father asked him if anyone had ever told him that he looked a lot like that Casey Anthony prosecutor, Jeff Ashton. “‘That’s because that’s who I am,’” Ashton replied. This May, when Ashton was in Manhattan to speak at a panel at Pace Law School, he went out to dinner in Little Italy. As he was waiting outside for a table, he says, the restaurant’s manager recognized Ashton and congratulated him on his performance in the Anthony trial. Facebook fan pages have sprung up. One claims to be Ashton’s “#1 Fan Page” and is filled with comments like “my hero...Mr. Ashton :)”

Once, on a Cub Scout campout with one of his sons, another father asked him if anyone had ever told him that he looked a lot like that Casey Anthony prosecutor, Jeff Ashton. “‘That’s because that’s who I am,’” Ashton replied.

The feeling isn’t shared by his opponents. “Jeff is despicable,” says Joerg Jaeger, who was the sole Republican contender for the State Attorney office until he dropped out last month. Jaeger says Ashton “single-handedly lost the Casey Anthony case,” due to his “shenanigans.”

“The beauty of the Casey Anthony trial is that people could see it for themselves” on TV and make their own judgments, says Ashton. He says he’s wanted to run for State Attorney for years, but was only able to run after the Anthony case because “name recognition is the key to politics.”

Ryan Williams, a local prosecutor who dropped out of the race on July 5th and has since endorsed Ashton says “it’s not like Jeff went out there and set himself on fire.” Williams says it was Lamar who positioned Ashton “front row and center” on the Anthony case. Judge Bob LeBlanc, a Ninth Circuit judge, says “the celebrity came to [Ashton], he didn’t create it.”

Ashton, who had tried 85 murder cases before Anthony, says that case was neither the goriest nor the trickiest of his career. He says it didn’t compare to the case of John Huggins, for example, who was accused of murdering Disney employee Carla Lawson in 1997 while vacationing with his family. Huggins is now on death row. Or of Tommie Lee Andrews, a serial rapist he helped convict using DNA samples to match Andrews’ semen and blood samples with those found at the crime scenes.

Ashton retired last July, a week after the Anthony verdict was announced. His tell-all about the case, Imperfect Justice, has gone into two hardcover printings, and according to campaign finance filings brought him more in royalty checks--$104,675— than the $103,625 the State of Florida paid him in 2011. “Even if Anthony’s conviction would have made the book less popular,” says Ashton, “I still would have preferred the conviction,” says Ashton.