Live long enough and the line between reality and farce becomes blurred: If we can imagine something happening, reality has a way of overtaking our fancy, and presenting as fact that which we conceived of simply as an entertaining possibility. Consider the case of State v. Casey Anthony, and the unlikely hero of the tale, her lawyer, Jose Baez.
You never heard of Baez prior to the trial. That’s because the young lawyer was only recently admitted to the bar, in 2005, after being denied admission by the Florida bar’s character and fitness czars. The 1997 law graduate had issues with bankruptcy, back child support and other financial decisions that led the bar to conclude he was unfit to practice law.
Baez came up through the school of hard knocks. He is a high school drop out who earned a GED. A military veteran. An entrepreneur who tried and apparently failed to make a living selling bikinis, and then worked as an Internet entrepreneur. He worked as a staff at Lexis/Nexis for a spell, teaching lawyers and judges how to do online research.
The bar punched his ticket in 2005, and soon he gained a reputation in his local community as a fighter. When Casey Anthony was charged with the murder of her daughter, Caylee, fellow inmates recommended Baez. For three years, he stood by his client’s side. He was lead counsel at trial, earning rebuke after rebuke by the judge, and the scorn of commentators who thought his tactics unschooled and unconventional. He was a goat until the verdict was returned, and now he is all smiles.
Did someone say My Cousin Vinnie? Already, online wits are referring to the 42-year-old barrister as the next Johnnie, or is it Jaunnie?, Cochrane. The reality of what Baez accomplished in the Anthony trial now makes My Cousin Vinnie look less like entertainment than Continuing Legal Education for lawyers. Reality becomes farce, you see.
I don’t know how Caylee died. Neither did prosecutors in Florida. Neither do you. But judging by the reaction to the verdict in her case, most folks assume Casey killed her and that she got away with murder. But as one of the jurors in the case told a reporter, the state simply did not prove its case. You can’t convict on suspicion.
It would not surprise me to learn that federal prosecutors in Florida are burning the midnight oil trying to dream up some basis for federal jurisdiction to make another run at Anthony, in a trial before a judge with a firmer command of the courtroom than the hapless jurist, Belvin Perry, who presided, more or less, over the Anthony case. (Does it surprise you to learn that Perry is considering making a run now at reality TV?)Most prosecutors have the soul of a ward heeler: there are votes of a sort to be had trying to get Casey into court again. Good luck.
The choice of counsel in this case turned out to look inspired. Had the case gone the other way, Baez would be today’s goat, and critics would have skewered him as inexperienced and unqualified, much like the hapless lawyer, Joseph Rakofsky, who stood beside a murder defendant in Washington D.C. earlier this year: the judge in that case declared a mistrial.
The oddest thing about the trial? Casey’s father, George, is a former homicide detective. His daughter faces the death penalty, and hires a newbie to defend her. Her father had to know she was taking a huge risk. Is this the best her father could conceive for a lawyer? Or did he have his own reasons to hope for a conviction? That’s another question without answers.
Congratulation to Jose Baez. Enjoy the days and weeks to come, and keep an eye out for your next case. Second acts are brutal. In the meantime, I'm looking for a copy of the trial transcript in the Anthony case. Baez has plenty to teach.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.