Tears of joy and relief erupted from the accused and her supporters Thursday in Vernon Supreme Court.
Deborah Louise Ashton, 47, a former Vernon elementary school teacher and vice-principal, was found not guilty on all five counts by Judge Alison Beames of having an alleged sexual relationship with a former student of hers.
The relationship was alleged to have happened between 2003 and 2005, when the boy was in Grade 7 at the same elementary school as Ashton, and continued on while he attended a Vernon high school.
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.
When Beames delivered her verdict after 25 minutes Wednesday morning, Ashton broke down in tears beside her lawyer, Terry La Liberte, and her supporters erupted in cheers, ovations and also shed numerous tears.
Beames concluded “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).”
The judge agreed on the evidence presented that Ashton took the alleged victim – Beames referred to him as ‘the complainant’ in her submission – and a number of his friends to movies, out for food, to her house, and spent a considerable amount of time at the complainant’s home with his family.
She accepted as fact, during the student’s Grade 7 year, that Ashton and the complainant shared a bed during a two-night hotel stay at a three-on-three basketball tournament in Vancouver. Two other boys shared another double bed in the room, and a third boy slept in a cot.
Beames found the testimony of Ashton’s ex-husband, Mike Jellema, to be very credible and felt he did not show animosity towards Ashton while questioned by lawyers.
She rejected the evidence of Ashton’s brother, Michael, about a trip to Vancouver that Ashton took with the complainant and his brother, dropping the brother off at his relative’s home in Surrey, then proceeding to her parents’ home in Coquitlam.
Jellema said the trip had occurred on the Labour Day weekend of 2003, while Michael Ashton countered that it happened earlier, likely June or July.
Beames was satisfied that Deborah Ashton bought a Plan B emergency contraceptive at a pharmacy “five minutes from her parents home” that weekend, and told the complainant she wasn’t feeling well after having taken Plan B.
Beames stated that Ashton “never shared that piece of evidence with anybody else.”
The judge also conceded that because these events happened when the boy was just 12 and 13, she could accept that his memory might be tweaked as more questions about the events were asked.
However, where Beames had “fundamental and significant problems” was whether or not a sexual relationship had taken place.
She admitted that the complainant and Ashton having sex “231 times,” a number produced by Ashton’s first lawyer, G. Jack Harris, “can’t be accepted or reliable.”
“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 is “likely or probably happened.”
“When the evidence fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused must be acquitted,” said Beames.
La Liberte agreed with the verdict.
“We showed the frailities of what Crown’s evidence was,” said La Liberte. “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. We don’t and judges don’t leave their common sense at home.”
Ashton did not speak to the media after the verdict, and neither did Crown lawyer Neil Flanagan.
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.”