Of the many varieties of despicable acts adult humans are capable of committing, few are as loathsome as crimes perpetrated against children.
Currently in Polk County alone, there are 375 cases pending in the Special Victims Unit, that part of State Attorney Brian Haas’ domain devoted to prosecuting crimes committed mostly against children but also involving adults with special needs or other vulnerabilities. The five-member group prosecutes abuse and neglect cases, homicide and sex offenses.
Leading the team is Florida native Ashley K. McCarthy, who earned her undergraduate degree from Florida State, worked for a few years in child services agencies, then earned her law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law. Soon after flirting with the idea of personal injury law, she took a job interning with then-State Attorney Jerry Hill where she quickly decided her true calling was going after those who raped and murdered children. She became a prosecutor in 2009, and, she says, “never looked back.”
Q. Did you have a fairly accurate idea of what you were getting into as lead prosecutor, or was it much tougher than you’d imagined?
A. It was harder than I’d thought. This position was a huge learning curve because of all the different things that I do – supervise the other attorneys while still having a caseload of my own, helping them with legal issues, approving arrest and search warrants that we send to the judge. Plus I’m on call 24/7.
Q. What specific cases is your division assigned?
A. Sexually motivated crimes, the majority of which are against children but also against disabled adults who are victims of crimes – they may be at an age of consent but be mentally unable to consent. And we do the abuse and neglect cases of children, plus homicides that result from that, including first-degree murder.
Q. You have your own caseload as well as supervisory responsibilities. What have you prosecuted recently?
A. I just finished one, the death of a baby, two months old, killed by her father. He was offered a plea but he rejected it, went to trial and was found guilty. He’ll be sentenced later this month and the judge will decide the sentence. A sentencing hearing plays out a little differently than reading an affidavit from a plea bargain. The behavior of the defendant at trial may be taken into consideration. In this case, he got up on the stand and lied and it was proven that he did and that could influence the judge.
On the sexually motivated crime side, I finished a case in August with two defendants who were sharing a little girl, having sex with her when she was between the ages of five and seven. One of them was her father. They were videotaping that and it was among the most horrific cases I’d ever seen. One of the defendants received 27 consecutive life sentences. He deserved more than that for what he did.
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Q. What happened to the little girl? How can that damage ever be repaired?
A. I do not know. I hope and pray that the girl will have a rich and meaningful life and that she has support around her so that she will overcome that. But it is going to be very difficult, not to mention the fact that they created a video. A lot of times we just hear what happened when we talk to the victim. But in the last five years or so, we’re seeing more cases where we have video evidence – people are so stupid that they do that. It’s unfortunate that we have to see that too, but it helps us bring our cases.
Q. All crimes against children carry lifelong implications for the victims but may also for investigators. What is the most gut-wrenching one you’ve been involved in?
A. The worst I ever saw – and I told the judge this – was a 6-year-old girl who was beaten to death. I get choked up just thinking about it, and I think about this girl every single day. Even the EMS people who testified started crying at trial. One of the officers left law enforcement altogether after that case. It was that horrible.
Q. Are those who have been convicted of crimes against children disproportionately more likely themselves to have been crime victims when young?
A. That happens, yes, but for the defendants we prosecute, I don’t hear a lot of that. However, when we have children who offend against other children, in my experience it happens, maybe not in every case, but in the majority of them. And those cases are very tough for me because my whole job is to protect kids. But for a lot of the other offenders, they’re opportunistic – not necessarily because they were abused themselves. They simply take opportunities with vulnerable victims.
Q. I understand you lost a child – not to crime – an identical twin who died when he was three days old. Does that burden carry special significance in how you approach your job?
A. I did this work for about five years before he was born and died. It was already hard then, and I would say, yes, it makes it more difficult for a lot of reasons besides the obvious ones. A lot of the kids in these cases will go to Tampa General Hospital because that’s where they’re transported. My son died in that hospital. This last case I tried, the child was an identical twin. It’s given me an unfortunate but unique perspective to have had that happen. So, yes, there’s a lot there that can be triggering, but just becoming a parent at all makes me fight harder.
While my child was not the victim of a crime, I’ve always connected with the victims’ families. Now I have an even deeper connection with them. My child did not suffer the way theirs did, and I can’t imagine what that is like.
Q. Social media, which is pervasive even among the very young, has made it far easier for predators to reach children of all ages. Does this pathway constitute a large portion of your cases involving sex crimes?
A. It’s starting to, but what we’re seeing more is gaming. If you’re playing online games you have access to other people and you meet children on the game. They will start communicating and I have seen a huge influx of cases starting there, including defendants from other states. And that has really amped up in the past two years.
There are all these crazy apps kids can use that are hidden, so if they’re communicating that way, it’s a little tougher for us to get that communication. Snapchat is a big one. It isn’t always saved on the device so we have to issue search warrants for the app itself. We sometimes have to send preservation letters saying we’re prosecuting someone, do not delete. Facebook, Instagram – they do comply and preserve things for us. Then you’ll have kids on dating sites, using a false age. The defendant links up with them and knows at some point that they’re not the age they say they are.
But the majority of the relationships are with people that these children are around – relatives, teachers, coaches and others they know. The people that we prosecute were usually in a trusted position. What we see most of is familiar.
Q. What advice can you give parents to protect their kids from those seeking to harm them via the internet?
A. You have to monitor everything they’re doing. I don’t have kids that age, but I wouldn’t be getting my child a device. It’s really necessary that the kids are monitored, that the parents have a lot of oversight and are involved. The parents who are going through their kids’ devices are the ones who are catching this, going to law enforcement and stopping it. I think it’s great when parents go through the kids’ devices.
I wish I had good advice. I can tell you these parents of the abused – and even the wives of the defendants, who are usually male – are in complete disbelief that this happened. And I understand that because to them, this person is a whole ‘nother person, and they are finding out all this information and it’s really difficult for them to grasp. I give them a little time to come to Jesus, and they usually do. But sometimes they don’t and they support that defendant versus their child.
Q. What’s the youngest child you’ve put on the stand to testify? A. A little over 5. She was 4 when it happened. The standard is you have to be competent to testify, and that’s usually not challenged. The judge does a colloquy with them to make sure they can talk about things chronologically, that they understand the difference between the truth and a lie, and makes them promise to talk only about true things. The jury is instructed that just because they’re a child you don’t treat them any differently. Unfortunately, children have to testify in a lot of cases. I find that they are the most genuine witnesses and should be believed a lot more than they are.
Q. Have the horrors that are presented to you on a daily basis made you more cynical and less trusting of your fellow citizens?
A. Unfortunately, yes. I’ve been doing this for a while and it absolutely takes a toll on you. I just see so much all the time – the subject matter and the dark forces – and you do start to look at the world differently.
Q. How do you deal with the pressures and dark forces that come with your job? How do you keep a balance? How do you de-stress?
A. I’m always reassessing. I find what I’m doing to be important and the benefit of doing this outweighs the detriment right now. But that might not be the case in a month. Having the choice is a big thing, because Brian would let me walk away from it and do something else if I needed to. I’m big into exercising – it’s like a meditation to me, my brain goes to zero. I try to compartmentalize. You have to because I can’t talk to a lot of people about this – nobody really wants to talk about it. It’s hard because I’m on call all the time. I could be at home, sitting there with my son, having a wonderful moment and get a call about a child who’s just been beaten to death.
But I still want to be able to enjoy the beauty of the world and the goodness of people because most people are good. I’m seeing just a small portion and I have to remember that. So I try to enjoy my life, smell the roses, just think about the positive things I have in my life. I have a wonderful family and support system, I have a faith. And I have a very fulfilling job – it’s a huge part of who I am. I’m 42. A lot of people my age are searching for that purpose and I am not. I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Ashley McCarthy sees the horror as a prosecutor in the special victims unit