As a Casey Anthony hearing broke for lunch Wednesday, Chief Judge Belvin Perry walked across his courtroom and up to a podium facing not the witness stand or the bench, but television cameras.
In minutes, Perry went from assessing arcane testimony about human decomposition to discussing statewide court finances to providing the press with measured answers about a fiscal crisis averted — his mind shifting, one gear to the next, like a high-performance clutch.
How does one man juggle the demands of a nationally observed murder case with a court budget crisis and a year of personal loss?
"Put it this way: I virtually have no life," Perry said. "Between this, between going to Tallahassee and my administrative responsibilities in running the third largest circuit in the state of Florida, I stay pretty busy."
When they wrote the job description for Chief Judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Belvin Perry Jr. couldn't have anticipated all this:
The loss of two dear colleagues within a 15-month span. A leadership role with the Florida Innocence Commission. A seat on the state Trial Court Budget Commission trying to preserve court funding. An onslaught by courthouse activists looking to undermine one of his administrative orders.
Those are just some issues Perry deals with when he's not hearing the Casey Anthony murder case. Next month, when that trial begins, everyone will see how Perry presides over the high-profile case in an era of information and immediacy.
What they won't see is a man who rattles easily.
Same rules for everyone
Last month, when Anthony's defense team filed a motion accusing him of bias in a ruling, Perry showed no outward anger or resentment. The next day he addressed the motion — denying the request for a rehearing and ignoring the bias claim.
Perry cannot talk about the Anthony case now, but during an interview last week, he expounded on his life, his work ethic and his personal code as a jurist.
"As a lawyer, the only thing I ever wanted was a judge that was consistent, that followed the law and that made everyone play by the same rules," he said. "That has always been my philosophy."
Perry is known to be tough but fair and a stickler for details, legal procedure and timeliness. Some of this may be attributed to the demands of his parents.
"From washing dishes to doing household chores, everybody had things to do, and it was inspected," he said. "And if it did not meet the standards of my mom and dad, you had to do it over and over until it was nearly perfect."
Ask William J. Sheaffer, the prominent criminal defense attorney and local television analyst in the Anthony case, if Perry can handle so many jobs and the pressure inherent in a case like this. His answer is unequivocal: "Absolutely."
"Everything that's happened before in Judge Perry's career and personal life has led to the handling of this case," Sheaffer said. "Nothing's killed him yet and it has made him … a lot stronger."
From segregation to the bench
Belvin Perry's story arc is well documented. His father, Belvin Perry Sr., was one of Orlando's first black police officers, joining the force in 1951.
Perry graduated from Jones High School, where his sister is now the principal.
He is old enough to remember how entirely segregated Orlando was during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, Perry said, within his community, he enjoyed a nurturing, supportive network of family, friends and teachers.
Still, he was aware of the racial divide.
One Church Street theater Perry had go to as a child was known as a "rat trap" because the audience would see the rodents scampering below the movie screen. Local restaurants would serve black people takeout, but Perry's father would have to pick up the food at the back door.
For a long time, Woolworth's would not allow Perry and his friends to sit at the luncheon counter, and, when they finally could, "It was like that was a great experience to be able to walk in and get a hot dog for the many years that you couldn't."
His father taught that life was "too short to hate," but Perry felt frustration. Upon returning to Orlando with a law degree from Texas Southern University, he could not find a job.
So he pumped gas, was a substitute teacher and worked as a bartender on weekends to support his family.
"I said, 'Dad, I'm growing tired of this. … A lot of things in this place have not changed and I'm thinking about moving back to Houston where the opportunities may be greater," Perry said.
His father urged patience and arranged for a meeting with then-State Attorney Robert Eagan. The top prosecutor promised Perry a job once he had an opening, and on Dec. 1, 1977, Perry went to work as an assistant state attorney in the traffic division.
"It was my goal to stay in the prosecutor's office two and a half years to three, go into private practice and make my fortune," Perry said. "Unfortunately I began to like it."
He rose to chief assistant state attorney before becoming a judge in 1989. Colleagues first elected him chief judge in 1995. He took two years off and then was re-elected chief in 2001. He has held the position since, and was unanimously re-elected for another two-year term this year.
As judge, Perry has handled cases on both the criminal and civil sides of the law. He has sentenced eight people to death. He is known for reading the relevant case law even before lawyers cite cases in court. Some believe he could have risen to the Florida Supreme Court — if it weren't for something Perry calls, "a very painful regret."
In 1998, he acknowledged an affair with former deputy court administrator Janis Williamson, an indiscretion for which he publicly apologized. "The first thing you learn," he said, "is how human you are."
He recalled his father's advice about dealing with mistakes: "You've got two choices. You can forever feel sorry for yourself and run and hide or you can dust yourself off and try to go on and make amends."
Losing friends, mentors
A judge's life can be a lonely existence spent avoiding conflicts and appearances of favoritism.
Perry has a small circle of four or five close friends. Among his closest was retired Senior Judge Richard "Dick" Conrad, who passed away in early March. He was discovered at home after Perry realized he had not reported to court as scheduled.
Perry said Conrad was his mentor, his best friend on and off the bench and "and in some ways, my protector."
"I'm a pretty strong individual but every day a couple of times a day I just cry," Perry said of his friend's passing. "There were no secrets among us. I trusted him without any reservation, and he trusted me."
Another judge who shared his friendship was Bob Wattles, a popular jurist who battled cancer before his death in January 2010. Wattles' wife, attorney Patricia Strowbridge, said Wattles could have been compelled to retire as his condition deteriorated.
That outcome, she said, would have been financially disastrous for their family due to the steep medical bills. But an understanding was reached in which Wattles would work to the best of his ability, and when he could not, Conrad would step in for him.
"That went on for two years," Strowbridge said. Without this, Strowbridge said, "We would have lost everything. Judge Perry had his back."
Not everyone is so enamored with Judge Perry. Early this year, Perry came under fire from a group wanting to hand out pamphlets to jurors at the Orange County Courthouse after he issued an order blocking it from doing so. It has gone as far as calling for Perry's impeachment.
More recently, Perry was accused of "clear bias" by the Casey Anthony defense. Sheaffer said he handled it with quiet grace.
As for the media covering the Anthony case, court watchers say Perry should handle the onslaught without jeopardizing the trial's integrity.
Brad Conway, former attorney for Casey Anthony's parents, said Perry will start to show how this trial will be run when jury selection begins May 9.
"The only considerations I think you're going to see him make are for the comfort of the jury," Conway said. "He's aware of the fact that these are people who have lives. And they're giving up a portion of their life to do the right thing."
email@example.com or 407-420-5447
Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr.
Family: Wife, LaDrean; children Kimberly and Belvin Perry III
Education: Bachelor's degree in history and masters degree in education from Tuskegee University; law degree from Texas Southern University.
In his words: "When the end comes for this chapter in my judicial career and I move onto something else, I will be forever grateful and thankful for the trust that the people placed in me….and also for the criticism and the naysayers — because that's all a part of life."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun