Published July 05, 2011
Jose Baez, the defense attorney who was repeatedly second-guessed in the media for his tactics during much of the Orlando, Fla., murder trial of Casey Anthony, appeared vindicated Tuesday after the jury found his client not guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Courtroom observers had doubted his legal competence, but “I think their competence argument has fallen,” Baez told Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera after the trial.
By accepting the case three years ago, Baez shot himself from obscurity into the national spotlight, but he suggested Tuesday that his focus is on serving clients accused of crimes.
“I’m a defense lawyer and it’s my honor ... to be part of such a profession,” he said. "While some might masquerade as defense lawyers, there are a unique group of people in this country that protect individuals' rights day in and day out, across this great country."
A high-profile case often draws lawyers with household names, but Baez, who was honored by his law school for his public service, initially seemed to be an unlikely choice.
During a cable TV interview in April, Baez was asked how he was chosen in 2008 to defend Anthony.
“I don’t know," he said. "I have at times pinched myself and asked, how’d I get here?”
The story goes that a few inmates at the Orange County Jail recommended Baez to Anthony.
“I heard people say, ah, this landed on his lap, but I built up a hard reputation of fighting for my clients,” Baez said.
It is unclear how Baez is being paid for his work on Anthony's case. When asked by reporters in 2009, he reportedly said, "it's no one's business."
Baez was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx and South Florida, according to an Orlando Sentinel profile. He dropped out of high school, married young and spent time in the Navy, where he trained as an intelligence analyst. He's now divorced and has a daughter.
After he graduated from St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami in 1997, he initially was not allowed to practice law in Florida because of unpaid debts and child support payments, the Orlando Sentinel reported, but he still was able to do work for the Miami-Dade public defender's office. He finally received his law license in 2005.
Baez was criticized during the trial by analysts who suggested he was out of his league handling such a major case, in particular for an opening statement suggesting that Caylee drowned accidentally and that Anthony was sexually abused by her father and brother.
As one example, Bill Sheaffer, a veteran attorney, told the Daily Beast last month that the defense was “inadequate and ineffective.” The article's title described Baez as "Casey's Dysfunctional Lawyer."
"He's really flying by the seat of his pants," Robert Jarvis, a lawyer and professor at Nova Southeaster University Law Center, told ABCNews.com in early June. "From his very confusing open, from the way he's been cross examining witnesses, at this point, you really have to wonder what his strategy is."
But the defense team forged ahead, poking holes in the prosecution's testimony and underscoring that authorities had never determined the cause of Caylee's death.
Alfredo Gracia, the former dean of St. Thomas University School of Law who was Baez’s professor, said it is easy for lawyers and the media to be Monday morning quarterbacks.
“Litigation is an art, not a science,” he said. “I think he did a marvelous job.”
Despite the not guilty verdict, Baez still faces a mixed assessment from his peers. Richard Hornsby, an Orlando attorney who has been critical of Baez’s cozy relationship with the media, offered some praise: “I don’t believe anyone could have given a better closing argument than what Baez did.”
But he added, “The media frenzy, that was brought on by himself.”
After the trial, Baez appeared sober and told reporters that Caylee died far too soon, and he expressed hope that the verdict would highlight problems with the death penalty. He said he bonded with Anthony and wants her to be able to grieve and grow, and somehow get her life together.
“This was a horrible tragedy, an accident that snowballed out of control,” he told Fox News when asked what really happened to Caylee.