Her lawyer prepared her not to jump to any conclusions during Judge Alison Beames’ verdict until Beames spoke her final words.
And when Deborah Ashton heard Beames say “not guilty,” she buried her head in her hands and erupted in tears of joy and relief.
Ashton, 47, a former Vernon elementary school teacher and vice-principal, was found not guilty Wednesday morning by Beames on all five counts of having an alleged sexual relationship with a former student of hers.
“I can’t remember when it (emotion) turned, I remember very little about the courtroom other than that she (Beames) dressed me down for, what, a good five-to-10 minutes?” said Ashton, hours after the verdict was rendered.
The relationship was alleged to have happened between 2003 and 2005, when the boy was in Grade 7 at the same elementary school Ashton taught at, and continued on while he attended a Vernon high school.
Beames said, in delivering the verdict, “there is evidence in this case that Ashton and the alleged victim – who was in the courtroom to hear the verdict – had a relationship that went far beyond the normal teacher-student and player-coach relationship (Ashton was the boy’s basketball coach at the Vernon elementary school they were at in Grade 7).”
Ashton had been charged with sexual interference of a person under 14, invitation to sexual touching under 14 and sexual assault in her first trial on the matter, which ended in February 2011 with a hung 12-person jury.
This time, before Beames alone, Ashton was also facing two additional charges of sexual exploitation. She pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The judge said that while evidence showed an inappropriate relationship happened between Ashton and the alleged victim – Beames referred to him as ‘the complainant’ in her submission – she had “fundamental and significant problems” on whether a sexual relationship had taken place.
“The complainant clearly testified that numerous sexual acts took place in her vehicle, but he can’t recall a single, specific instance of intercourse in her vehicle,” said Beames. “He couldn’t say if they had sex on the front seat, middle seat or back seat.”
Beames also pointed out that the complainant had no recollection of what she called “a huge and obvious tattoo” that Ashton has on her navel.
Crown counsel had to prove to Beames that a sexual relationship had taken place, not that it “likely or probably happened.”
“When the evidence fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused must be acquitted,” said Beames.
In the courthouse Thursday, before the verdict was read, Ashton said she received numerous text messages and well-wishes from her supporters which proved to be a welcome distraction.
“It took my mind off things,” said Ashton. “I was shaking all morning, nervous all morning, but I was hopeful. I felt there was reasonable doubt.”
La Liberte agreed with the verdict.
“We showed the frailities of what Crown’s evidence was,” said La Liberte outside the Vernon Court House Wednesday. “The obvious one was a huge tattoo that just defied the imagination. For somebody to stand up and accuse somebody of a serious criminal offence like this in Canada, they better have their ducks in row.
“They’re presumed to be innocent until Crown has proven beyond any reasonable doubt. The Crown did not have the evidence in this case and there were some very striking errors that mystified the imagination.”
The night before the decision, Ashton said she chose to be alone for the first time in a year. Normally, she’s been surrounded by family and friends, people who left food for her while she was living in a barn with no running water, having sold her house to help pay her legal costs,
Many of those supporters were in the courtroom Wednesday, erupting into cheers, ovations and shedding tears when Beames read the verdict.
“If I hadn’t had those people, I don’t know where I’d be today,” said Ashton, holding back tears. “I wouldn’t persistently get one note or one phone call, I’d get six-to-10 calls from one person saying I needed to get out of the barn and start talking to people.
“It was people I’d known before, former colleagues, and the second I let people start to know it was OK to come into my space, it was those people who adopted us (Ashton and her two children). They adopted our family, and many of them treated us like their own family.”
Crown lawyer Neil Flanagan did not speak to the media after the verdict, but one of the complainant’s supporters was disappointed with Beames’ decision.
“I was there every single day,” said the woman, who did not want to be named. “I found the witnesses for the Crown to be exceedingly credible. I believe they proved the case.”
Both Ashton and La Liberte said they have not made any decisions about Ashton’s future plans.
Ashton will be back at the Vernon Court House on Thursday appearing in provincial court to deal with two perjury charges stemming from her first trial.