by Randy Noles
hair and makeup by Elsie Knab • photographs by Rafael Tongol
Among the colorful cast of characters who gained prominence during last summer’s Casey Anthony murder trial, few emerged unsullied. Those whose reputations were actually enhanced as a result of that sordid, six-week circus included Belvin Perry, the no-nonsense judge who refused to suffer fools, and Linda Drane Burdick, the stoic assistant state attorney whose riveting rebuttal to the defense’s closing argument seemed certain to seal Anthony’s fate.
Anthony, as the world now knows, was the hard-partying, 22-year-old “tot mom” who was charged with murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, simply because the child had become a hindrance to her active social life. The trial transfixed the nation and, for better or worse, made celebrities of feuding lawyers and dysfunctional family members. Anthony was revealed to be, at the very least, a boozy sociopath whose apparent callousness made her arguably the world’s most hated woman.
“What do guilty people do? They lie, they avoid, they run, they mislead,” Burdick, a seasoned prosecutor, told the jury. “Whose life was better without Caylee? That’s the only question you need to answer in considering why Caylee Marie Anthony was left on the side of the road dead.”
Courtroom observers judged Burdick’s rebuttal a home run. “Fabulous,” said WKMG-Channel 6 legal analyst Mark NeJame. “Really damning,” said WOFL-Channel 35 legal analyst Diana Tennis. “Far stronger than even her opening statement, which was powerful,” said WFTV-Channel 9 legal analyst Bill Sheaffer.
But none of the talking heads were serving on the jury. Anthony, who Burdick called “the most well-documented liar ever seen in a courtroom,” was found not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated manslaughter of a child and aggravated child abuse. She was convicted only on four misdemeanor counts of providing false information to a law-enforcement officer.
In the angry aftermath of the trial, Burdick’s voluble co-counsel, Jeff Ashton, 53, retired and hit the talk-show circuit. He wrote a bestselling book, Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, and announced that he was running for state attorney against his longtime boss, Lawson Lamar. The book is being adapted into a Lifetime Original television movie in which Emmy-winner Rob Lowe will play Ashton.
There is a certain irony to all this hoopla, because it was Burdick, not Ashton, who was the lead prosecutor on the case. Burdick, however, shunned the spotlight – “I have no desire or need for attention,” she said repeatedly – which is not at all surprising to those who know her. Following the verdict she returned to her job as deputy chief of the Felony Bureau, where she supervises other assistant state attorneys and continues to try cases.
“Linda reacted to the [Anthony] verdict just as I would expect her to react,” says William Jay, an assistant state attorney in the Homicide Division, a unit of the Felony Bureau supervised by Burdick. “She was ready to move on to the next case the next day.”
In fact, until this interview with Orlando Home & Leisure, Burdick, 48, had not spoken publically about the Anthony trial. Nor had she revealed much about herself, despite continuing media interest in the intensely private single mom whose tenacity and professionalism had won kudos despite the shocking verdict.
She agreed to appear in this issue because of its focus on female attorneys and because, a year removed from the Anthony trial, “it won’t look as though I’m exploiting the case.” Even so, that Burdick would speak at all caused some eyebrows to be raised.
“Is Linda cooperating with this story?” asks a skeptical Ashton when contacted for comments. “She’s actually one of the most private people I’ve ever met. Her life is her work and her daughter. Our styles were kind of like fire and ice.”
Adds Jay: “It isn’t that Linda is indifferent about receiving attention. She just doesn’t like being in front of the camera, and she doesn’t like talking to the media. She’d rather be the person silently working hard outside of the spotlight.”
And that’s fine with Lamar, who’s locked in a nasty and surprisingly personal political race. He has harshly criticized Ashton’s “immature” demeanor during the Anthony trial as well as his lucrative post-trial business ventures. His praise of Burdick, therefore, appears intended to draw contrasts: “Linda has no problems with ego and is always a professional in the courtroom and outside it. She’s all about ethics and justice.”
Those who have worked with Burdick describe her as resilient, meticulous, driven, dogged and even a bit aloof. But, they add, a certain amount of emotional distance is to be expected from anyone who has remained sane after 23 years prosecuting alleged child abusers, sexual predators, murderers and rapists.
“Let’s put it this way,” adds William Busch, another assistant state attorney who reported to Burdick when she headed the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Division. “I’m about 6-foot-6, and I’m intimidated by her. She’s very daunting and incredibly intense. But she’s a great leader.”
Others close to Burdick, whose blonde good looks attracted significant male commentary in the blogosphere, insist that she possesses a “wicked” sense of humor that isn’t always apparent to casual acquaintances. At times, however, even in routine conversations, she evidences a subtle sarcasm that comes as a surprise when she displays it. Asked about her button-down image, Burdick’s deadpan reply is: “It’s true, I’m no fun at all.”
Then she smiles. Not a big grin, mind you, but a wry smirk that lets you know she’s kidding. Sort of.
Linda Burdick was born in Lower Burrell, a small town northeast of Pittsburgh. Her parents, who divorced when she was 10, both worked for one of the region’s largest employers, Alcoa. As a little girl, she recalls romping with her sister, Cindy, on the family’s wooded, 7-acre homesite.
“There was a pond on the property, and we’d ice skate in winter,” Burdick says. “I played softball in high school, but I got good grades and I liked to read. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but since both my parents worked for a multinational corporation, I thought I wanted to do something that allowed me to travel.”
When it came time for college, Burdick considered international relations or social science. Instead she earned her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pittsburgh, then graduated from its highly regarded School of Law in 1989. A lousy Rust Belt economy brought Burdick to Orlando, where she was hired by the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office as an assistant state attorney handling misdemeanors and, later, general felonies such as drug possession. By 1992, she was working on sex crimes and child-abuse cases.
“The case that stands out for me was an early one, where the parents of two little girls, ages 5 and 7, disciplined them by putting lit matches between their fingers,” Burdick recalls. “Neighbors called the police when they noticed the wounds. These were the sweetest little girls, who just wanted somebody to love them.”
As she gained experience, her cases become more high profile. In 1997, Aaron Campbell, a black Miami-Dade police major, got into a scuffle with Orange County sheriff’s deputies who stopped his Ford Explorer on Florida’s Turnpike. The subsequent controversy landed Burdick her first appearance on Court TV.
Campbell, who contended that the stop was a result of racial profiling, argued with deputies and fled before he was tackled, pepper-sprayed and taken to jail. A videotape of the altercation, made by a camera installed in a deputy’s car, was shown on television and sparked a national debate. Campbell, meanwhile, was charged with two counts of battery on a law-enforcement officer and resisting arrest without violence.
The stop was ultimately ruled illegal, and Campbell was acquitted of felony charges. He was convicted only of resisting arrest without violence, a misdemeanor. Burdick, however, managed to persuade a judge that Campbell should reimburse the county $7,000 for the cost of prosecuting him, arguing that “Mr. Campbell chose to use this case as a soapbox, and that cost the taxpayers money.”
Ironically, Campbell was represented by J. Cheney Mason, the bearded stemwinder against whom she would face off during the Anthony trial.
In 1999, several years after transferring to the Homicide Division, Burdick got her first death-penalty case. She prosecuted Kevin Robinson, who carjacked a woman in Eatonville and stabbed her repeatedly before leaving her body in a burning car.
Several days later, he fatally shot another woman in Brevard County. Jurors recommended that Robinson be put to death, but the judge overruled them and sentenced him to life in prison.
“By the time I began handling homicide cases, I’d already had years working in sex crimes,” Burdick says. “I had seen the horrible things that people do to one another, and to children. I guess I had become desensitized. That’s not to say that I don’t feel these things, but you can’t let yourself get too emotionally involved.”
What followed for Burdick was a succession of notably grisly cases, each of which she dispatched with her usual deadly efficiency. Circuit Judge Bob LeBlanc remembers marveling at her laser-focused approach during his days as a lawyer in the Orange-Osceola Public Defender’s Office. “Linda and I each won and lost our share of cases and always maintained a mutual respect,”
LeBlanc says. “She is a bit obsessive about trial preparation, I will say that. Most attorneys have an idea of how they want their line of questioning to go, but Linda would have a script. Now, that’s preparation.”
In 2001, she prosecuted Theodore Rodgers Jr., who on Valentine’s Day shot and killed his wife at a day care center because, he said, he believed she was having an affair with her ex-husband. Rodgers was sentenced to death.
In 2005, she prosecuted Derek Pelto, who killed his girlfriend by stabbing her and then striking her repeatedly with a hammer. Pelto was sentenced to life in prison. That same year, she prosecuted Clyde Blount, who shot and killed a 16-year-old who he said had been bullying his son. Blount was convicted of manslaughter.
Most recently, in 2008, Burdick prosecuted Aurlieas McClarty, who walked into an Orlando U-Haul, shot two employees dead and fled with $200. McClarty was sentenced to life in prison.
Those cases and others further enhanced Burdick’s reputation as a tough and savvy prosecutor. She was less successful in her prosecution of Orlando Magic TV analyst Jack “Goose” Givens, who was accused of multiple sex crimes by a girl, then 14, whom he coached. Givens was acquitted after a tawdry trial in which the girl’s credibility was called into question.
Despite the long hours and stresses inherent in her job, Burdick married in 1999, to an Orange Country deputy sheriff. That union lasted seven years and produced a daughter, Kaitlyn, now 10, who lives with her mother and plays fast-pitch softball in the East Orange Little League.
“I’m really invested in my daughter’s interests,” Burdick says. “I obviously have a great job, and the work I do is important. And when someone who deserves it gets punished as a result of what I do, there’s a certain amount of gratification in that.”
Casey Anthony was first arrested on July 16, 2008, and charged with giving false statements to a law-enforcement officer, child neglect and obstruction of a criminal investigation. The judge denied bail, saying Anthony had shown “woeful disregard for the welfare of her child.”
The Anthony case was not yet a murder case when Burdick got it. But when a meter reader named Roy Kronk discovered Calyee’s skeletal remains in a trash bag, the child-neglect charges were dropped and first-degree murder charges were filed. “I assigned it to myself,” says Burdick, who then recruited Ashton as co-counsel because of his expertise in forensic evidence.
Anthony was represented by Jose Baez, an inexperienced lawyer with a checkered past, assisted by the far more credible Mason. Baez, whom Ashton criticized in his book as “smarmy,” opened by accusing Anthony’s father, George, of sexually abusing his daughter while offering no evidence to support his contention.
Burdick, meanwhile, struggled to keep Ashton on an even keel. He frequently clashed with Baez, for whom his contempt was obvious, drawing admonishments from Perry and, quite possibly, annoying jurors already worried that the evidence against Anthony, while overwhelming, was largely circumstantial. Most notoriously, Ashton appeared barely able to conceal his laughter during Baez’s closing argument.
“I told Jeff that he needed to calm down,” says Burdick. “What I recall him saying was, ‘You can’t force me not to be me.’” Burdick adds, however, that she doesn’t believe Ashton’s antics impacted the results of the trial. Lamar is less sure: “Did it make a difference? The answer is, I don’t know.”
Burdick employs her usual lawyerly caution when discussing Ashton’s book and movie deals. She will only say that she hasn’t read his book and doesn’t intend to. “I lived it,” she says. “Nobody on the planet knows more about the case than I do, including Jeff.”
Regarding the movie, Burdick has declined requests to meet with the screenwriter and professes not to care who portrays her. As it happens, the actress is Elizabeth Mitchell, best known for her role as Dr. Juliet Burke on ABC’s Lost. Mitchell does, in fact, resemble Burdick. Even so, the Orlando Sentinel has conducted its own tongue-in-cheek casting exercise on its website, matching trial participants with celebrity lookalikes. Ashton is paired with Ben Stein, while Burdick is paired with Heather Locklear.
“Whatever is produced, I don’t expect it to necessarily resemble reality,” Burdick adds. When reminded that the movie is based on Ashton’s book, she replies with a simple, inscrutable “yes.”
Burdick remains disdainful of and a bit embarrassed by her own celebrity, saying that it’s “unbecoming for lawyers” to seek publicity. “That is simply foreign to me. I just wanted to do a good job for Caylee. During the trial, I watched and read absolutely nothing. I didn’t need to hear any more opinions.”
She refuses to comment on the verdict, except to say, “I’ve learned never to be surprised by anything a jury does.” She insists that she isn’t consumed by the trial and doesn’t understand why some people still are. To Burdick, who has handled dozens of horrific cases, the Anthony trial was unique mostly for the attention it attracted. “I’ve had child homicides before,” she notes. “It seems as though the media controls what people are interested in.”
In what little spare time she can muster, Burdick, who lives with her daughter in the Waterford Lakes area, enjoys reading historical non-fiction, particularly books about the Civil War. She and Kaitlyn enjoy watching Castle, a detective show in which a hunky mystery writer helps a beautiful female detective solve crimes. She will not, however, watch CSI, which she describes as “laughable and completely unrealistic.”
What’s next for Burdick? She was recently one of 23 applicants seeking the judicial seat left open by the ouster of former Orange-Osceola Judge James Turner, who was removed due to inappropriate behavior around a female staffer. She was passed over for the job, but expects other judicial openings will present themselves. “I’ve always thought that eventually people achieve their goals based on merit,” she says.
One attorney who would support Burdick for a judgeship is Ashton. “Not only is she a great lawyer, but she also has a passion for understanding the law and applying it,” he says. “Plus, that icy demeanor would be a good one to have as a judge.”
Says Burdick, momentarily dropping the hard-edged veneer: “I just want to make my daughter, my mom and my dad proud. If I can do that, then I’m happy.”
Additional research by Jessica Inman.