For almost as long as the Casey Anthony murder case has been a part of the public awareness, there have been murmurs about her attorney José Baez's handling of the case.
They're all variations on the same theme: that Baez, a defense lawyer with limited experience working on perhaps one of the most visible local murder cases, is swimming in waters — and taking on legal challenges — beyond his depth.
For many, the latest but most vivid example to support this lingering suspicion came nearly one week ago when Chief Judge Belvin Perry struck Baez with a sanction for a "willful" violation of his court order to share expert-witness discovery with prosecutors.
Defense lawyers and legal scholars familiar with the Casey Anthony case say sharing discovery in Florida is like "Criminal Law 101," helping ensure there is no "trial by ambush." Following a judge's repeated orders, meanwhile, is even more fundamental, something readily understood by lawyers and nonlawyers alike.
William Sheaffer, a criminal-defense attorney and media analyst well-versed in the Casey Anthony case, said the judge's punishment last week "doesn't speak well of Baez on a professional level."
"There is a valid criticism — and it was certainly reflected by the court's ruling — by attorneys, the judges, law professors …," Sheaffer said, that Baez "is inexperienced, perhaps has some hubris that's not warranted and that, more importantly, he has failed to rise to the challenge of representation of this client and the most serious charge one could face."
Anthony, 24, is scheduled to go to trial in May for first-degree murder in the 2008 death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee Marie. She faces the death penalty if convicted.
Sheaffer and other attorneys interviewed for this article say the verdict is still out on Baez. Legal-ethics scholar Bob Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, said Baez might pull off a real-life "My Cousin Vinny."
He was referring to the 1992 Joe Pesci film in which a rookie lawyer from Brooklyn exonerates his young cousin and his friend in a Deep South murder case.
"Baez may manage to pull out a victory from the jaws of defeat," Jarvis said. "Until a trial is done, it's too early to call winners and losers."
Baez, 42, would not directly answer questions about the sanction or other concerns raised by the attorneys and legal scholars watching this case.
Judge Perry's punishment this month was not the first time a judge handling this case has taken action in response to Baez. In March 2009, Circuit Judge Stan Strickland, who was then hearing the case, wrote a letter to The Florida Bar about ethical concerns he had about Baez.
The issue involved allegations that Baez directed investigator Dominic Casey to "walk away" if he found Caylee's lifeless body during a 2008 search — and then contact Baez rather than law enforcement.
Citing sworn statements by Dominic Casey, Strickland wrote, "If truthful, they are extremely troubling. While it is certainly possible that Mr. Baez may have intended to call law enforcement himself, there would be absolutely no reason, legal, practical, or otherwise to call anybody but law enforcement."
The judge asked that the matter be investigated as soon as possible, writing that if the Bar punished or suspended Baez, "prompt action will be required on my part."
The Strickland letter and the entire Dominic Casey issue were investigated by a Florida Bar grievance committee and resulted in a finding of no probable cause against Baez, a Bar spokeswoman said last week.
When asked to discuss the Strickland letter, Baez said, "I have been cleared of all Bar complaints filed against me."
In April 2010, Baez argued to have Strickland removed, saying the judge had a "personal relationship" with a blogger critical of Anthony. Strickland dismissed the idea that he was biased against Baez and his client, but ultimately recused himself. He would not comment for this article.
Mixed relations with media
When reached last week to respond to the criticism and the management of the case in light of Perry's sanction, Baez said, "I don't have to answer any questions. Who are you?"
He added, "Do you have something to offer my client? It's a two-way street. … The door is open if you can assist me or my client." He hung up the phone, called back minutes later and said that conversation was off the record. Told that the conversation was not, Baez responded by saying, "You're lying and being unethical."
He threatened to stop discussing the case altogether, an approach he has at various times taken with other Central Florida reporters.
But Baez's relationship with the media was not always so combative.
In fact, other local attorneys say Baez's playing up to the media — especially national organizations — early on in the case demonstrated his inexperience, floating alternative defense theories and directing blame at others.
His moves, they say, inflated the case, earning it more national exposure than it perhaps would have received had he simply focused on the defense or even attempted to work out a plea deal before Caylee's remains were found in December 2008.
"These high-profile cases really are a different animal," said Mark NeJame, who is no stranger to cases that get a lot of media attention. "You really, really have to know how to handle it."
NeJame's one-time representation of Casey Anthony's parents and then Texas EquuSearch has put him at odds with Baez. But it also has made him very familiar with the case.
Meanwhile, Sheaffer, who serves as a legal analyst for WFTV-Channel 9 and comments frequently on the Casey Anthony case, said having the national media court an attorney the way they did Baez "becomes real heady," but it also helps prop up the circus tent that has surrounded this case for more than two years now.
Sheaffer said comparing the Casey Anthony defense to the handling of the James Robert Ward murder case reveals Baez's lack of difficult criminal-defense work and the considerable skills of another veteran attorney with many years of experience, Kirk Kirkconnell.
Ward's case — the shooting death of his wife inside their Isleworth mansion — had all the elements of a media circus, Sheaffer said, but Kirkconnell has managed to keep the case, well, managed.
"Kirkconnell does everything that he should do, and he does it right," said Sheaffer. "Mr. Baez has stepped on land mine after land mine and continues to so do."
In particular, Sheaffer said, Baez appears unwilling or unable to take "criticism in a constructive vein, even from the bench."
With Perry's recent sanction against Baez, NeJame said, "The judge is simply saying, 'Enough and no way, José.' Ignoring a judge is not an option. Especially ignoring this particular judge is not an option."
That is not to say the defense has sat idle for the past two-plus years. Dozens of defense motions, many attacking media coverage and pre-trial publicity and picking at details that appear to have little impact on the client's defense, now fill a clerk's court file comprised of 16 folders.
Jarvis, the Nova professor, has followed the drama revolving around Baez and asked why a judge hasn't removed him from the case through one of several avenues, including The Florida Bar inquiry sought by Strickland. Beyond that, he asked why Casey Anthony hasn't moved on to another lead attorney.
"It would be fascinating to know, 'Why are you sticking with this guy?' " Jarvis said.
Many in Central Florida's criminal-defense community figured that once veteran and highly experienced attorney Cheney Mason joined the Anthony defense team that Baez would elevate his game and rise to the very serious nature of the case, Sheaffer said.
"That does not, at least at this juncture, appear to be the case," he said. But, he added, the trial has not started yet, and the only people Baez and his team will have to impress are the jurors seated to hear this case.
"My hope is that Mr. Mason has a more prominent role in the trial of this case and or that Mr. Baez at trial again rises to the occasion or is motivated by Mr. Mason's appearance at trial."
Mason did not respond to requests for comment.
Anthony Colarossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5447.
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