Casey Anthony: Dissecting Jeff Ashton’s Book

I give credit where credit is due. Jeff Ashton was a helluva prosecutor in this case. Like him or hate him, you can’t deny that the man was good at selling a story. It was almost unfair how much better he was than anyone on the defense team. The secret behind his success was his logical reasoning. His theories just made sense, so it was difficult for people to argue against him. However, in this case, his logic was his downfall.

While reading his book, I found myself agreeing with Ashton on many topics. Indeed, if you read his book and read some of my previous posts, you will see that in many places my logic mirrors his – which is a bit eerie. However, on the issue of murder, we disagree. Ashton has repeatedly said in interviews that his book outlines the “truth” as he believes it. I commend him for adding the disclaimer.

Ashton reviewed the case evidence in his book and I’m going to keep him honest. What was true and what was embellished?

Part I: The Backstory

The first few chapters were spent reviewing the timeline, with added commentary. It was essentially his take on what was going on in people’s minds. Aside from his cynical comments, his presentation of the events were fairly accurate because they were punctuated by the police reports. However, his take on the events were very much a story. Throughout the book, he played on a theme he wanted to “expose” at trial: the relationship between Casey and her mother, Cindy. He also used the book to, somewhat, clear George Anthony’s (Casey’s father) name and perpetuate the media stereotype of Casey Anthony.

Arresting Casey Anthony

We know that Casey was arrested less than 24 hours after Cindy called 911. Ashton said Yuri Melich and John Allen did this to protect Casey:

They discussed a concern that, if left on her own, Casey would take her own life, like Melinda Duckett, another Central Florida mother whose toddler had gone missing… No one wanted that to happen to Casey, so Melich did the logical thing. He decided to arrest Casey Anthony then and there.

I’m not at all certain that was the “logical” move nor am I sure if Ashton’s reasoning is correct. It seems that the detectives were already set on arresting Casey before she took them to Universal Studios, as they told George on the morning of July 16 (transcript):

I think it was Yuri [Melich who called me]. And he just says that they were coming to my house to take Casey in for some more questioning. And I remember he was very specific. He says, “George, she might not be coming back home.”

June 16, 2008

Ashton wrote a very short paragraph outlining this very important day:

On that Monday, June 16, George saw Casey and Caylee leaving the house at around 12:50 in the afternoon. She told her dad as they were on their way out that she was going to work and Caylee was going to the nanny’s… Shortly afterward, at around 2 P.M., George left for his job as a security guard. Later on, Casey told her mother the same story about spending the night at Zanny’s; however, cell phone records showed that Casey was still in the vicinity of the Anthony home until 4 P.M. Whether or not she returned there after George left that afternoon has never been established.

By 7 P.M. that evening, Casey was in the area around the home of her boyfriend, Tony Lazzaro, and at 7:45 P.M., Casey and Tony were captured on video at a Blockbuster renting a movie, strolling with their arms around each other. There was no sign of Caylee on the camera footage.

I was quite disappointed upon reading this paragraph. This was the last day Caylee was seen alive and, by admission of the defense, the day she died. I expected there to be explanation of computer activity and phone calls but, just like at trial, there was nothing.

I took particular exception to this statement: “Whether or not she returned there after George left that afternoon has never been established.” According to the computer forensics (read “June 16 Timeline”), there was heavy hard drive activity between 2pm and 3pm on the Anthony home computer. Unless Lee Anthony, Casey’s brother, paid a visit to the house when no one was home or George never left, then the computer evidence firmly established the fact that Casey returned home.

Also, Ashton said that by 7pm, Casey was in the area of her boyfriend, when in fact it was more like 4:30pm.

The comment was a classic example of a prosecutor glossing over undesirable evidence. The prosecution didn’t want Caylee at home for obvious reasons. If she was at home, then there was a possibility of an accident. In fact, later on in the book, Ashton expressed his disgust at Baez for telling that to Cindy Anthony:

It was the cruelest thing I have ever seen an attorney do. To tell this grieving woman, who for almost two years had held out hope that her daughter had nothing to do with the death of her little angel, that her own home was the place where it happened was bad enough.

Car Abandonment

On June 27, Casey’s car ran out of gas at the busy intersection of Goldenrod and Colonial. Ashton explained it in his own way:

She called Tony to pick her up at the Amscot check cashing store at the intersection of East Colonial and Goldenrod in Orlando, because she had run out of gas again. When Tony got there, he offered to put gas in the car, but Casey said her father would take care of it. Even though two gas stations were immediately adjacent to the Amscot store, they left the Pontiac in the parking lot…

Ashton made it seem like Casey intentionally abandoned her car in plain view. However, he glossed over the fact that Tony was busy with school and Casey told him she’d come back  (transcript). Also not presented were the facts that her belongings and driver’s license were still in the car (transcript); she and her friend, Amy, went to Target to buy a gas can (transcript); and Casey actually went back to Amscot and told Amy that her car had been towed (transcript).

Ashton then brought up an interesting discussion:

Of all the lies that Casey had been telling, I found myself most drawn to her decision to abandon the car. If ever something was bound to reveal her bizarre behavior, it was the car. Nothing seemed to add up about it. This move demonstrated such an apparent lack of planning, such an absence of consideration for the consequences, that it seemed like a spur-of-the-moment decision. Was that the case with all these lies? Was she really just making them up as she went along, elaborating on older lies and dusting them off to suit her ends? Did she have a long-term strategy?

This was a point I made in a previous post. If this was a murder, then there was an absence of planning and a disregard for the consequences. The only “strategy” Casey employed was lying, which signified her involvement in something. However, she certainly didn’t “act” like a murderer when it came to concealing the evidence.

In summing up the timeline of events, Ashton said:

None of this alone made it a murder.

Part II: The Science

The middle part of the book dealt with the forensics and things that happened behind the scenes. It was a commentary of what Ashton was seeing and feeling over the course of the 3-year case. He discussed the odor analysis and root banding evidence. Also, for some reason he chose to insult Jose Baez quite personally instead of simply voicing his frustrations. However, I couldn’t care less for their professional relationship, or lack thereof.

Decomposition Odor Analysis

In my opinion, the child’s corpse was in the trunk of Casey’s car at some point for a short period of time. I thought the prosecution proved that quite handily. Like Ashton, I am a science geek; but unlike Ashton, I’m a researcher not a prosecutor. I guess that makes me more like Dr. Arpad Vass. I was going to write a post outlining the odor analysis, but Ashton did it for me in his book:

His work is based on the principle that all odors are simply combinations of different chemical compounds released into the air through chemical and/or biological reactions. Some of those compounds are detectable by human beings, and we perceive them as smells. My mom’s spaghetti, the odor of which is instantly recognizable to me, is simply a group of chemical compounds in a certain concentration that my brain has learned to interpret, recall, and react to. Similarly… the odor given off by a human body during decomposition—which, if you have ever experienced it, is instantly recognizable—is also simply a combination of chemical compounds.

Imagine one of those liquid Glade plug-in refills. Various chemicals went into making that aromatic liquid. In order to release the scent, one has to insert the refill into the plug-in which, in turn, would heat up the liquid. The liquid would vaporize (slightly) and a scent would be given off. Now, imagine spilling that liquid on a piece of carpet then heating up that carpet. One could capture the chemicals vaporizing off of the carpet.

This was what Dr. Vass, of the Oakridge National Lab, did in this case:

He took the carpet sample and placed it in a special bag made of a plastic designed not to react with the substances placed in it. Vass then heated the carpet to the approximate temperature that would have existed in the trunk, removed a sample of the air, and cooled it to concentrate the sample. After the cooling was complete, he ran it through a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, a device commonly used by scientists to break a substance into its underlying compounds.

The questionable portion of this analysis involved Vass’s research. His research involved creating a database of chemicals given off by the human body during decomposition. The smell told the investigators that there had been a corpse in the trunk, but they wanted some scientific proof. The chemicals found on the carpet, and thus in the air, was consistent with many of the chemicals in his database. But how was his research conducted? Was there any verification by other researchers in the field?

The Duct Tape

Ashton talked about the duct tape:

Even before the skull was removed, a length of shining gray plastic duct tape, about half an inch from the face of the skull, could be seen through the leaf debris. At first glance, there appeared to be more than one piece… Though the tape was not adhering to the jawbone (also known as the mandible), some strands of the tape were. Dr. Utz found it unusual that the jawbone was still in its natural position in relation to the rest of the skull. He would later explain that during decomposition, when the strands of tissue holding the jawbone to the skull decompose, it always separates from the skull. The only time the mandible and skull are found in proper position is when there is something keeping them in place throughout that process, which in this instance was the tape.

Jeff Ashton refers to the duct tape as proof this was a murder. Personally, I was looking for a little bit more science to back up his claim, but it wasn’t there. It was the same old story from the trial. Therefore, the analysis in my previous post still applies (read “Challenging the Duct Tape”). In essence, the tape could not hold the mandible in place during the decomposition process because the tape was adhered to the skin. The skin “melted” and decomposed, thus leaving no surface for the tape to adhere to. Therefore, the tape could not have had any appreciable effect on holding the mandible in place.

Psychological Revelations

The controversial “bombshell” in this book was the release of information Casey told psychologists. Normally, psychological information is confidential, but Ashton thought it was prudent to include it in his book. Like the rest of the book, much of the information was surrounded by Ashton’s sarcastic commentary and thoughts. He wanted to show that Casey was making up stories and such, however Cheney Mason already stated that early on in the case Casey was “lying” to her defense (source). Ashton conveniently left out when Casey Anthony made those statements to psychologists.

Nevertheless, there was one juicy nugget:

Dr. Weitz told us that he had reviewed Dr. Dangizer’s report. He brought to our attention Dr. Danziger’s MMPI results and agreed they were normal. Dr. Weitz had given her a battery of tests, including one designed to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by trauma like sexual victimization. The test did not support the conclusion that she had been victimized. Weitz explained it this way to me: I am not diagnosing her as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but all of these things that she did were as a result of the denial of having been sexually molested. You can understand all of this behavior by denial and suppression.
“So, when Casey said that Caylee was with the nanny, she believed it?” I asked him.
“Yes,” Weitz said.
“When she was taking the cops through Universal, did she believe she worked there?”
“Yes.”

In another post, I posed the question of whether Casey Anthony was deliberately or delusionally lying about the child’s death. Now I have my answer and it certainly makes sense. The friends who were around Casey when she was released on bond said that she truly believed her child was kidnapped. The video of Casey in jail revealed the moment when she returned to reality.

Also, along with Dr. Harry Krop (source), we have two other doctors who say Casey Anthony’s MMPI scores were normal. She’s not a psychopath or sociopath.

Bella Vita

Ashton called this the biggest piece of evidence which pointed to a specific motive.

I have often thought it was ironic that Casey Anthony got a tattoo meaning the “Good Life” – which is what she told Amy it meant. In researching Casey’s life for another post (read “Casey Anthony: Loving Mother?”), it seemed that her life was anything but “good.” She had no job and no money. She had a tumultuous relationship with her parents. And her attempts to find “Mr. Right” weren’t going anywhere. Those were constants before and after June 16, 2008.

Incidentally, this is what Casey told her psychologists:

In explaining the “Bella Vita” tattoo, she said it was an ironic comment on the fact that her life hadn’t been beautiful.

Casey created an image of herself in which she was successful and had a “good life.” This was the image she portrayed to everyone else. Like everything else in her life, the tattoo was a lie. It was a physical manifestation of a lie she wanted people to believe. I guess it worked.

Part III: The Trial

The last part of Ashton’s book was primarily his thoughts on the trial. I would call this the entertainment section of the book.

Linda Drane Burdick

Prosecutor Burdick always appeared professional, but things aren’t always as they seem. Ashton recalled travelling to jury selection in Tampa:

What had escaped my attention was this: When Casey was arrested, a photo of her being escorted in handcuffs by the police had been taken that had been shown a thousand times. In it, she is wearing a blue hooded short-sleeved shirt with the number 82 on the front. It was one of the items she bought with her friend Amy’s forged checks, along with a pair of white sunglasses. I had forgotten that early in the case Linda had gone out and bought the identical shirt and glasses. So the entire drive, she’d been in her Casey costume.

Everyone is allowed to have fun, but was this appropriate or not? You be the judge. Ashton also clarified the joke he made at trial:

He took the carcass of a pig, put it in the trunk of a car, and let it decompose over time. He showed the jury pictures of the rotting pig and all the flies at various stages of decomposition. As he was making his presentation, Linda leaned over and whispered, “He didn’t put his pigs in a blanket.” We both laughed, and Linda dared me to actually say that during cross-examination.

I must say, she has a twisted sense of humor.

George Anthony

Ashton expressed his thoughts on the way George Anthony acted under cross-examination:

Baez knew how much George disliked him and used it to his advantage. Baez probably wanted the jury to see George’s hostility, and George took the bait. He was not bright enough to read what was happening. I wanted to say, “George, just stop playing games, just answer the question,” but I couldn’t. I’ve always wondered if on some subconscious level George was trying to look guilty. Maybe this was his way of helping Casey. I didn’t really think so, but I wondered. For someone who was innocent, he had a way of making himself appear suspect.

My thoughts exactly.

Heart-Shaped Sticker

Ashton talked about the lack of importance of the sticker:

Ever since the story of the heart sticker had first circulated, I’d felt that this evidence was not worth presenting due to its ambiguous nature… There were still questions about the sticker and whether the stickers found during a search of the Anthony home were an exact match to the dime-size imprint Fontaine had seen on the duct tape. I also questioned the relevance of including a sticker that had been found thirty feet away from Caylee’s remains that may or may not have been involved. I thought it was a distraction that we didn’t need, but Linda wanted it included in the testimony, so I acquiesced.

The sticker was actually found farther away. Oddly enough, Baez’s arguments at trial were the same thoughts in Ashton’s head. Also, this passage demonstrated Prosecutor Burdick’s desire to play to the emotions of the jury rather than to the facts of the case.

Common Sense

Ashton talked about “common sense” and brought up the chloroform:

When you find that someone has searched on a computer for instructions to make chloroform and you find chloroform in the trunk of the car, common sense puts two and two together, and concludes that someone made chloroform for some purpose.

This is a classic example of a prosecutor’s thought process. Never mind the fact that it would be next to impossible for Casey to actually make chloroform (read “The Chloroform”). Never mind the fact that they didn’t find any chemicals to make chloroform or any chemical making apparatus. You just leave that part out. Keep it as general as possible, brand it as “common sense,” and hope the jury buys it. If they don’t, say that they didn’t put two and two together. Prosecutors do sell misleading evidence. Just ask Amanda Knox.

Mistaken Theory

Ashton spoke about their theory:

However, something happened the night of June 15 that triggered a blowout… The only specific rumor that we had heard about that meltdown on the fifteenth was that Cindy had found pictures of Casey at an “anything but clothes” party on Facebook and had lost her last bit of patience. In the photos, Casey was wrapped in an American flag and holding a beer. Cindy was enraged. Our theory held that Casey decided that night of June 15 that she was going to take Caylee from the household for good.

This was not a rumor. Cindy found these pictures and confronted Casey about them. However, this “meltdown” happened on July 15, 2008 in front of Tony Lazarro’s apartment – not on June 15 at their house. In fact, Amy Huizenga recalled the night (transcript):

I don’t know if you guys have seen the picture with Casey and the American flag. That’s from the no clothes party we went to in May. She (Cindy) pretty much showed that picture, that she had printed off from a computer, in her (Casey’s) face and said, “You’re at work? Huh?”

Amy first met Cindy on July 15, 2008. How was she able to know what Cindy Anthony said and did one month prior? Furthermore, if Cindy figured out that Casey didn’t have a job, why did she continue to believe her after June 15? The prosecution’s theory, much like the rest of the case, was based on speculation. And as we are learning now, much of it was wrong.

Reasonable Doubt

Ashton talked about the jury and the concept of reasonable doubt:

Assuming they did follow the instructions, the question becomes one of reasonable doubt. We tell jurors that burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, but defining that term is difficult. A reasonable doubt is not a speculative, imaginary, or forced doubt. We use concepts like “abiding conviction of guilt,” which ultimately means that the definition of “reasonable” is up to them. They must apply common sense, that knowledge of how people act by having lived in the world, to reach their own conclusion.

They presumably felt it was reasonable to believe that a mother would react to the accidental drowning of her young daughter by making no effort to revive her. They presumably felt it made sense that the mother’s next act would be to stuff her in a garbage bag and throw her in a swamp. If the jurors felt that those were “reasonable” reactions in keeping with what they knew about human behavior, then they had every right to feel that way and we have every right to disagree with them.

Man, this guy is good. He applies logic – and colorful verbs – in such a way that you almost feel stupid to think otherwise. I have used this exact strategy on this blog, as it is very effective – especially when dealing with scientific topics. However, in real life, I’ve been called out on this methodology numerous times for one very valid reason: human actions aren’t always logical.

Imagine finding two people drowning: one is a 60 year-old man and the other is a 16 year-old girl. Ideally you would want to save both people; but for this example, you only have time to save one. You calculate, somehow, that the man has a 60% chance of survival while the girl has a 30% chance. Who do you save? Logically, you save the man because, in the short period of time, he has the highest chance of survival. If you save the girl, then you definitely lose the man and have a 70% chance of losing the girl. Those are not very good odds.

However, is it unreasonable to save the girl? One could argue that the man has lived his life while the girl was just getting started. Even if she has a lower chance of survival, it is still a chance. Perhaps, she could live until 60 or beyond. Even knowing the odds, I think some would save the young girl anyway. (By the way, this example was brought to you by the movie I, Robot.)

In my opinion, this is the fundamental problem with Jeff Ashton’s reasoning. It’s too regimented and too logical. He said in the book:

One thing that was important to emphasize was the total absence of logic in Casey’s version of the truth… Simply put, her behavior did not reflect how a mother would react to the “accidental” death of her child—unless, of course, you believed in the logic of Casey’s world.

For Ashton to be true, Casey would had to have engaged in logical, reasonable behavior before June 16, 2008, and then do unreasonable things afterward. I believe the facade she put on and the life she lived prior is proof enough that she definitely was not rational.

For example, is it logical for a woman to hide her pregnancy? Not really. How about a 19 year-old girl who lived with her parents and got knocked-up by a one-night stand? In most families, that would be considered quite shameful and, probably, the Anthonys were no exception. How would her mother react? What would people say? Casey held that secret until she could hold it no longer. That’s the reality of “Casey’s world.”

The unreasonable becomes understandable after rationalizing her actions according to her past. Casey believed that her mother thought she was unfit to take care of her child. Whether or not Cindy Anthony actually believed that is irrelevant; Casey believed what she wanted to believe. Caylee dying on her watch was the worst thing that could possibly have happened. She knew her mother would not forgive her; therefore, she left home and hid the body.

Conclusion

One aspect I did find interesting was how Ashton passed the blame in this case. There has been much debate as to whether the State should have pursued the death penalty. Ashton said it was State Attorney Lawson Lamar’s decision to seek the death penalty. Some have said the case was overcharged. Ashton said it was the grand jury’s decision to indict Casey on what she was charged with, despite many local lawyers who have said that the State usually gets the last say. And, of course, Ashton said it was the jury’s fault that Casey went free. The burden was on the prosecution to present a case which proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Casey Anthony was guilty of murder. It’s time for Jeff Ashton to admit to himself that, realistically speaking, the case just wasn’t that strong.

I’m not taking anything away from Jeff Ashton. He was a great prosecutor and I’m sure he’ll be a great defense attorney. Perhaps now he’ll finally understand that, unlike in his world, people are imperfect. There’s always more to the story.

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