Several months ago, one of José Baez's most articulate critics wondered whether he would have a "My Cousin Vinny" moment at trial.
The reference to the 1992 Joe Pesci movie was amusing but poignant, too: The comedy explored how a rookie defense lawyer from Brooklyn managed to learn his craft on the fly and spare two young murder suspects from being convicted in a Deep South courtroom.
And if America loves a Cinderella story, what better place to have it told than here in Orlando, in the shadow of a castle named for that long-shot winner?
"The best feeling that I have today is that I know I can go home and my daughter will ask me, 'What did you do today?' " Baez said, "and I can say, 'I saved a life.' "
His post-acquittal statement was somewhat tempered and restrained for a personality such as Baez, who has exuded bravado and confidence, despite bloggers dubbing him "Bozo." His self-assurance was more evident in a response he text-messaged to an Orlando Sentinel reporter late Tuesday: "I told you two years ago that I was going to shock the world."
Even those who challenge his abilities as a lawyer would have a hard time denying his fierce advocacy for this particular client.
"I think the story to take away from this is: He is a wonderful advocate for his client, a zealous advocate," said Fordham law Professor Deborah Denno. "I think he could have been viewed as a protector."
Exactly how the jurors viewed Baez is unknown because they refused to speak with reporters Tuesday. But Denno noted that Baez's critics were often other lawyers who pointed out the things he was doing wrong at trial but not suggesting better alternatives.
"What else was he going to do with this particular case?" Denno asked. "He came up with an alternative story. Even if you didn't fully buy that story, he did come up with another story. He took some big risks in his opening statement, but they paid off for him."
As for Baez's legal bumblings, improper questioning and apparent problems following the rules of criminal procedure, Denno noted that these are things legal professionals notice, but maybe not jurors.
The law professor and others agreed that Baez danced on the line of what is proper for a defense lawyer and perhaps went over that line a few times, placing his career at risk to some extent for his client.
He tried to introduce expert testimony not previously disclosed to the state — and may still face sanctions for that behavior.
He repeatedly attempted to have witnesses talk about documents not in evidence. He called out the prosecution — especially retiring Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton — a few times in open court. He delivered a startling opening statement accusing Casey Anthony's father, George, of molesting his daughter and covering up his granddaughter's death.
It's a statement that will not be soon forgotten — especially because so much of what was claimed was not proved during the trial. But in the end, it did not matter. As he noted in his closing, Baez didn't have the burden of proof — the state did.
Chosen by chance
Baez's entry into the international spotlight as Casey Anthony's attorney was a fluke.
An inmate at the Orange County Jail simply recommended Baez to Casey Anthony. Aside from a murder case that gained him some attention in Lake County, Baez was a relative unknown.
But Casey Anthony's case enabled him to rise from obscurity in Central Florida's legal community to a household name.
Verdict boosts standing of Casey Anthony lawyer Jose Baez
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