A few years ago, José Baez was a little-known attorney in a small town in Florida called Kissimmee.
That all changed when a woman named Casey Anthony needed a good lawyer to beat charges that she killed her daughter. Inmates mentioned Baez, and Anthony reached out to him.
For Baez, 42, that began a meteoric rise from unknown defense attorney to international celebrity, culminating on Tuesday in what will likely be the biggest courtroom win in his career – the acquittal of accused child killer Casey Anthony.
“The best feeling is I can go home and I can say I saved a life,” Baez said after the verdict, following a tearful and emotional hug with Anthony.
But the rise to mini-stardom wasn’t easy.
Baez was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Bronx, N.Y., and South Florida with his single mother. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade. At 17, he married and became a father.
Fatherhood prompted him to turn his life around – he earned his GED and joined the Navy. Eventually, he returned to college and, in 1997, graduated from St. Thomas University School of Law in South Florida.
But then, the troubled life he had left behind began to resurface.
By then, he had divorced and failed to keep up with $200 child support payments for his only child. He had declared bankruptcy. Liens were filed against him for unpaid loans. His finances were in such disarray that he was not allowed to practice law – a decision upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the court said his behavior showed “a total lack of respect for the rights of others and a total lack of respect for the legal system, which is absolutely inconsistent with the character and fitness qualities required of those seeking to be afforded the highest position of trust and confidence recognized by our system of law.”
Baez started four businesses, including two bikini companies called Bon Bon Bikinis and Brazilian-Bikinis.com, until he was finally allowed to be admitted into the bar in September 2005.
Three years later, a relatively inexperienced and unprepared Baez walked into an Orlando courtroom and promised his famous client he would set her free. She faced the death penalty on charges she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
And the evidence against her was strong, though circumstantial.
Baez quickly learned the ropes. Years later, during the two-month trial, he doggedly sought to poke holes in the prosecution’s case.
"They throw enough against the wall and see what sticks," Baez said of prosecutors during closing arguments. "That is what they're doing ... right down to the cause of death."
Now Baez the Latino lawyer with just six years of experience under his belt is being called one of the best lawyers in America.
After the verdict was read on Tuesday, Anthony mouthed the words "thank you" to Baez.
But he’s not taking credit for the verdict just yet.
“While we are happy for Casey, there are no winners in this case,” he said during a press conference afterward. “Caylee has passed on far, far, too soon. What my driving force has been the last three years was to make sure there was justice for Casey and Caylee.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.