Fame can be fleeting; some people get their 15 minutes and are done with it. Jeff Ashton has been famous multiple times during his law career. All for the wrong reasons, unfortunately.
You might recognize him from this photo—20 years younger—when Ashton was a lead prosecutor during the Casey Anthony trial for the death of her toddler Caylee. The trial is still the third-most-watched of all time, eclipsing the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials. The public was almost universally convinced of Casey Anthony's guilt, but Ashton and his team lost the case after six weeks of testimony and over 400 exhibits. Anthony was found not guilty of all the major counts, including first-degree murder. She was only convicted of lying to police officers and released based on her time served.
Losing the case didn't end Ashton's career. He was elected to the Orange/Osceola State Attorney's office. He wrote a book, Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, where he promoted himself as the "most experienced homicide prosecutor in the history of Orange County." He claims over 70 successful murder prosecutions but is best known for one of the two he lost. The Lifetime movie Prosecuting Casey Anthony—with Rob Lowe starring as Ashton—debuted in 2013.
In 2015, Jeff Ashton made headlines again for being discovered to have visited the Ashley Madison website, generally used by those looking to cheat on their spouses. Ashton apologized profusely to his wife, children, and the public for embarrassing them, swearing he was only curious and never contacted anyone.
“Two years ago, I was curious about the Ashley Madison website, and I used my personal credit card to sign up for the site," said Ashton. "I deeply regret my affiliation with the site, which has caused a great amount of stress and heartache to my wife and children. I want to publicly apologize to each of them for this embarrassment and for my blatant disregard for their feelings’"
Because this is Florida, where bad choices are treated like a badge of honor, after losing a reelection bid for state attorney in 2016, Ashton was elected to a circuit judge position in 2018. Ashton was quietly serving as a judge with his term not to expire until 2025, when he made news again when word came out he was being investigated for child molestation and failure to report child abuse, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis' office. Ashton's wife, Rita Ashton, allegedly failed to report child abuse. A third party, David Ashton (relationship unknown), is being investigated for lewd conduct on a child under 16. The Winter Park, FL, police department has confirmed the investigations.
In full disclosure, I had the "opportunity" to get to know Ashton before the Casey Anthony trial, when he was the assistant state attorney for Orange/Osceola County. I served on a grand jury for six months, and Ashton presented the cases for consideration. We butted heads once when he wanted to charge a 14-year-old boy with first-degree murder—a boy that he knew wasn't a participant in the crime but a possible witness, and we refused to indict him. Ashton wanted the leverage of the heavy charge to flip the witness, willing to throw a young boy's life away in the process. I was the assistant foreperson of the grand jury, which met every few weeks to consider cases. The foreperson was unavailable that day, so I was in charge. I found Ashton arrogant and overly ambitious, and my opinion never changed over the years.
Ashton still serves on the bench despite the allegations against him and his wife. Ninth Circuit spokesperson Karen Levey released a statement to the Orlando Sentinel.
"There is no change to Judge Ashton's judicial assignment," said Levey. "He will remain in his civil division."
Only the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Supreme Court can suspend a judge, and neither has made the effort. This is, after all, Florida. With Ashton's track record, what makes him fit to judge others?