Cheers and tears resounded through Supreme Court in Vernon Friday morning, as the case of a former Vernon teacher and administrator facing two counts of perjury came to an end.
Upon hearing Justice Geoff Barrow declare her not guilty of both counts, Deborah Louise Ashton burst into tears and hugged her lawyer, G. Jack Harris, while up in the gallery, a dozen Ashton supporters erupted in cheers and applause.
“I can say I’m relieved,” said Ashton through tears to the assembled media approximately 20 minutes after the verdict was delivered.
“We’ve done our best to keep going…Jack Harris is an incredible lawyer, knows this case front and back, and he knew tone and tenor of the investigation as well. He applied himself and won this case.”
Ashton was charged with two counts of perjury pertaining to statements she made in her first trial in 2011 on five counts of allegedly having a sexual relationship with a former student.
That trial ended in a hung jury.
A Supreme Court justice found Ashton not guilty on all five counts at her second trial in 2012.
She was charged with perjury before the second trial with Crown alleging that Ashton made false and misleading statements in regards to a bracelet she allegedly bought her accuser, who cannot be named because of a publication ban, and Ashton’s claim that she always picked up and dropped off her son at day care.
In his 35-minute pronouncement, Barrow said that while he did not accept some of the evidence Ashton gave during the perjury trial, he could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Ashton knowingly made false statements or intended to mislead the court.
In fact, on the second count, in regards to the day care issue which Ashton admitted during the perjury trial that her answer was wrong, Barrow said she could have been suffering from the stress of the accusations against her and that her marriage was deteriorating when she gave her answers in the first trial.
The perjury trial started in March but closing submissions for both sides were delayed three months due to scheduling conflicts with the judge and the two lawyers.
Closing arguments were given on June 28, but took most of the court time, preventing Barrow from reaching a decision.
For Ashton, Friday’s verdict marked the end of five years in the court system.
“There were times we felt these charges were outrageous and had no chance of battling back against them,” she said. “It hurt because I spent most of my profession advocating on behalf of my students and my teachers.”
The three court cases, she estimates, have cost Ashton more than $100,000, and – in the most difficult part for her – cost Ashton her profession: teaching.
She told media she likely can’t go back into a classroom, though she is currently teaching adults to write, and tutoring students.
Ashton declined to say where she is now living.
What got her through the last five years, she said, was the unwavering support of family and friends.
“It’s tough to do this without crying because it’s been such a long road,” said Ashton. “What I have today is an opportunity to thank the people who stood by me right from the beginning: parents, teachers, administrative colleagues, friends from a long time ago and above all my family, who never let me down and never doubted me.”
Ashton has called for more protection for people accused of crimes.
“I’m the first one to advocate on behalf of minors that there must be accountability at the other end,” she said.
“I understand protecting minors who have made claims about sexual assault and I want those minors to keep coming forward.
“But those people who have been wrongly accused, there is no safety net for them right now, there are few protections. If those accused can be published in newspapers prior to trial, if stories can be spun toward guilt before innocence, we have very little chance of keeping the scales of justice in a proper alignment.”
Harris declined to speak to the media.
Crown lawyer Don Mann of Kamloops did not attend Friday’s verdict. He was represented Friday by Vernon Crown lawyer Howard Pontious.