A former bikini salesman, high school dropout and deadbeat dad who barely made it into the Florida bar pulled off what some are calling one of the most stunning court victories in history.
Jose Angel Baez, a 42-year-old lawyer who grew up in the Bronx and South Florida, had been practicing law for only three years when Casey Anthony, 25, hired him to defend her against felony murder charges.
Anthony found out about Baez from an inmate while in jail awaiting trial on charges that she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee and dumped her body in the woods near her Orlando home.
At the time, Anthony's father was skeptical, saying in a taped jail interview that "I hope he's not making a reputation for himself."
On Tuesday, that's exactly what Baez did.
His client was found not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter on a child.
Day in and day out, Anthony had been all but convicted on national TV. On Tuesday, jurors deliberated less than 11 hours.
When the verdict was announced, a gasp was heard in the Orlando courtroom of Circuit Judge Belvin Perry and Baez went from seemingly bumbling rookie to top of the legal heap. He smiled after the verdict and hugged his sobbing client.
"He is the luckiest man in America," said Robert Jarvis, a lawyer and law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla. He won, Jarvis said, not because of a brilliant legal mind, but because the prosecution couldn't prove its case, which was circumstantial.
"America is very schizophrenic. They say they hate pit-bull lawyers, but when they want to hire a lawyer, they hire a pit-bull lawyer," Jarvis said.
Baez, who grew up in the Bronx, moved to South Florida and earned his GED after dropping out of Homestead High School, was uncharacteristically subdued after the verdict was announced just before 2:30 p.m.
"This case has brought on new challenges of all of us," he said. "Challenges in the criminal justice system, challenges in the media, and I think we should all take this as an opportunity to learn and to realize that you cannot convict someone until they've had their day in court."
Those who have worked with Baez say he worked very hard on the case and proved wrong those who expected him to fail.
Terry Lenamon, a former member of Anthony's defense team, said Baez could be an example of what lawyers call the "Columbo factor," referring to the popular 1970s crime series featuring Peter Falk as a naive, clumsy detective who was underestimated by colleagues and others because of his irritating questions and shaggy demeanor. In the end, however, he always got the bad guy.Lenamon said that while he questioned Baez's strategy and motives at times, the attorney deserves credit for the acquittal.
"The guy is very tenacious; he stuck to his guns and he won," Lenamon said.
Before Anthony hired him, few people had ever heard of Baez.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1969, Baez was raised by a single mother who moved to South Florida. After dropping out of Homestead High, according to the Orlando Sentinel, he married at 17, became a father, and joined the Navy in 1986. The newspaper said he was assigned to NATO in Norfolk, Va., where he trained as an intelligence analyst with what he called "cosmic top secret" security clearance.
After leaving the Navy, he attended Miami-Dade Community College, graduated from Florida State University and earned his law degree from St. Thomas' University School of Law in 1997. He then joined the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office, where he worked as a paralegal for a short time, while struggling to be accepted into the Florida bar.
Early in the case, the Orlando Sentinel detailed Baez's inability to enter the bar because of numerous "misrepresentations" he made to the Board of Bar Examiners.
For the next eight years, the Florida Supreme Court continued to turn him down because of "character" issues, including financial problems that bordered on fraud. The Court wrote that Baez showed "a total lack of respect for the legal system," citing his inability to meet his debts, pay child support and repay his student loans.
He started four companies, two of them bikini businesses, Bon Bon Bikinis and Brazilian Bikinis.com, both of which failed, the newspaper reported. He also created a nonprofit group, the Miami Domestic Violence Project, but that faltered as well.
Initially, Baez's office in Kissimmee was wary of the media.
But as the story grew into nightly gavel-to-gavel reporting, he began to embrace it. He appeared on TV with Nancy Grace, who appeared to have made the Caylee Anthony case her personal crusade. She wasted no time dressing him down on national TV. He handled the pressure well.
"For every Casey Anthony who is acquitted, there are another 100 people who are just convicted because they hire young lawyers who think the best strategy is to just get on Nancy Grace every night," said Richard Hornsby, former president of the Central Florida Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Grace, who snidely referred to Anthony as "tot mom," was obviously distraught about the verdict. She directed her anger at Baez and the defense after they went across the street from the Orange County courthouse for a celebration.
"As the defense sits by and has their champagne toast after that not guilty verdict, somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight," she said.