Casey Anthony is not the first murder suspect José Baez has defended.But representing her has brought him more public attention, scrutiny and controversy than any other case since he became a lawyer four years ago.
In the process, he has bristled at suggestions that his trial experience is limited and at questions about how he is paying for the expensive legal team he has assembled.
From his office down the street from the Osceola County Jail, he has worked on several hundred criminal cases conducted in courthouses across Central Florida. This semester he also taught a course in pretrial practice at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando.
He was a low-profile local attorney, however, until he started working for Anthony, the 23-year-old mother accused of killing her toddler daughter, Caylee. Before that, no one was asking him to appear on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN or to jump aboard Fox TV reporter Geraldo Rivera's 70-foot ketch for an afternoon of sailing.
Along with the celebrity have come insinuations that Baez is over his head in the Anthony case -- sometimes from a law professor or someone such as former prosecutor Nancy Grace of Headline News.
Baez, 40, would not be interviewed for this story. His spokesperson issued a statement accusing the Orlando Sentinel of engaging "in a sensationalist persecution of a Hispanic lawyer..."
Earlier, however, he suggested that the newspaper could get a balanced view of his legal abilities by talking to the judge and prosecutor in a Lake County child-murder case he defended last year.
Circuit Judge Mark Nacke would not comment. Judges rarely comment on attorneys because anything they say might suggest they are not impartial toward a lawyer who could appear before them in court again.
Assistant State Attorney Bill Gross said it was the first time in his 30-year career that a defense lawyer had used him as a professional reference. He said Baez had done a competent job and showed promise.
"I've been doing this a lot longer than he, and I could recognize that he does have a lot of God-given talent. He is quite quick-witted, has an excellent ability to communicate," Gross said. "He did a very good job considering his relatively short time as an attorney."
Baez's client was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for manslaughter and child abuse in the fatal beating of a 2-year-old girl. Baez fielded questions from reporters in English and Spanish because the victim was the granddaughter of Puerto Rican boxer Wilfredo Vázquez, a world champion.
William H. Stone, chief assistant public defender in Lake County, said he, too, was impressed.
"I heard nothing but glowing comments about his abilities and representation of his client," Stone said.
Disputes over bills, support
Since he became a lawyer, Baez has been involved in several money disputes. They are mostly small compared with the bankruptcy, bad debts and other financial issues that prompted the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to refuse his application to the Bar after he graduated from law school in 1997. He was not admitted to practice law until 2005.
Darlene Bryant, a court reporter in North Carolina, said she spent six months in 2007 trying to get Baez to honor a $275 bill for work she did for him.
"He finally paid after I got the state Bar Association involved," she said.
Baez also ended up being sued in April 2007 over an $837.62 bill for 1,000 of his plastic business cards, which are decorated with a golden crest. Sir Speedy Printing went to court and won after Baez refused an offer from the Orange County Bar Association to mediate.
And in January 2007, four months before he bought a $670,000 waterfront home in a country-club community on East Lake Tohopekaliga, Baez was held in contempt of court for failing to pay $4,000 in child support, according to Miami-Dade Clerk of Court records.
His office spokeswoman, Marti Mackenzie, told the Sentinel that Baez and his former wife have resolved their support issues.
Spotlight follows big case
Baez's finances would be of little interest had the case of a lifetime not fallen into his lap in July. When Anthony picked Baez to defend her -- based on the recommendation of someone she met in jail, her mother has told reporters -- he took on a case that has attracted attention around the world.
Since then, he has appeared on Good Morning America and 20/20 on ABC, The Early Show on CBS, Today on NBC, Larry King Live on CNN, Geraldo at Large on Fox and others.
Last summer, he traveled to New York City, where he and his wife spent part of a day sailing with Fox's Rivera. Photos of the outing show a grinning Baez on deck with Rivera.
Heavy media schedules by defense lawyers raise the eyebrows of some seasoned lawyers. University of Florida law professor Michael Seigel, a former federal prosecutor, said any lawyer who goes public risks being accused of tainting the jury pool.
"It's very dangerous," Seigel said "Unless you are very skilled at it, it can truly backfire. . . . Most of the best attorneys around the country tend to be very quiet. They wait to try the case in a courtroom setting."
Setting a tone for the defense
Early on, Baez confounded reporters by taking on a media-relations company that used three anonymous -- and often irritable -- spokesmen calling themselves "Todd Black." Baez severed ties with Press Corps Media after one of the spokesmen turned out to be a felon who served time for trying to extort money from a TV reporter in California.
Mackenzie, who was hired to replace Press Corps Media, said in March that Baez had not known the felon's background.
Robert M. Jarvis, who teaches classes in legal ethics and law and popular culture at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, said the incident is just one of many twists in the case.
"I think he's a guy who's clearly in over his head. Handling a capital-murder case is obviously the most challenging thing a lawyer can do," Jarvis said. "So it's very surprising right from the get-go that a lawyer with less than four years of experience is handling this case. . . . Right off the bat, you have to say this is a guy who is very cocky or who is really naive."
Baez does his own speaking in court, where he has annoyed state prosecutors with his motions.
He has demanded repeatedly that the state speed up release of evidence it has and make it available for analysis by his experts. He has sought to block release of photos and videos that he said could show his client in a bad light. He has sought sanctions for prosecutors he accused of moving too slowly on his requests. He complained to the judge when the State Attorney's Office sparked a Florida Bar investigation by sending it news releases from his former spokesman.
He often does not prevail. For example, when the state wanted to force Anthony to appear in court, Baez balked, saying she didn't want to appear in public. The judge ruled against him, requiring she attend every hearing.
What Baez makes clear in all his court appearances is that he intends to vigorously challenge the state's interpretation of what the evidence against his client shows.
Who is paying, state asks?
A continuing controversy stems from the question of how Anthony, who had no assets when arrested in July, is paying for her defense, including the hiring of nationally recognized expert witnesses. One of them, pathologist Dr. Henry Lee, testified for O.J. Simpson at his murder trial.
In March, prosecutors asked Circuit Judge Stan Strickland to investigate whether Baez was playing two potentially conflicting roles for Anthony: defense lawyer and story agent.
Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton speculated in a motion that Anthony's "seeming conversion from pauper to princess" could be based on sale of her photos and videos, which had appeared in national TV reports about the case. He further speculated whether Baez could be managing both her assets and her defense.
TV networks admit that they often pay "licensing fees" for videos and photos, but they will not say whether -- and whom -- they paid to use photos and video of Anthony and her family.
Strickland refused to step in after Baez denied having any arrangement with Anthony to sell her story. Baez accused prosecutors of trying to intimidate and embarrass him.
Under the spotlight of the Anthony case, Baez had to retract a claim on his Web site that he won 32 out of 34 jury trials after starting work in 1995 with the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office. Acting on a complaint, a Florida Bar grievance committee ruled that Baez should have mentioned he was an intern, not a lawyer, when the cases were tried.
Baez criticizes Sentinel
In refusing to be interviewed, Baez issued a statement chiding the Sentinel for writing about him. Commenting on recent coverage, it said "your discrimination against a young, hard-working Hispanic lawyer who represents a high-profile client borders on racism. I wonder what reactions this profile on a prominent Hispanic lawyer will have on your readership."
Baez often mentions his ethnicity when talking about his defense of Anthony. Talking to reporters outside the Orange County Courthouse in January, he said he was the first Hispanic lawyer to handle a case of such magnitude -- a claim he has repeated since then.
Asked to evaluate the statement, Ramona Romero, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, named several Hispanic attorneys across the nation involved in cases of national significance.
"I hope his defense work goes well," she said of Baez, "but for him to say it's the most high-profile case a Hispanic lawyer has ever handled I think is inaccurate."
Baez has characterized the scrutiny and criticism he faces as an unavoidable consequence of his job. He also describes himself as a standard-bearer for future Hispanic lawyers.
"And I will not embarrass those that come after me by doing something as foolish and as unethical as what . . . I've been accused of," he said outside the courthouse in January.
Amy L. Edwards, Sarah Lundy, Walter Pacheco, Bianca Prieto, Mary Shanklin and researcher Susan K. Thompson of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at 407-420-5257 or email@example.com.
In Part One, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Baez could not meet the character and fitness standards for Florida lawyers when he first applied to become an attorney. Read the story at OrlandoSentinel.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun