He is a former bikini salesman, high school dropout and deadbeat dad who barely made it into the Florida Bar. On Tuesday, Jose Baez pulled off one of the most stunning court victories ever.
Baez had been practicing law for only three years when Casey Anthony, 25, hired him. Anthony found out about Baez from an inmate while in jail awaiting trial on charges that she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
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 in Orlando, 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. Baez went from seemingly bumbling rookie to top of the legal heap.
"He is the luckiest man in America," said Robert Jarvis, a lawyer and law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. 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.
Those who have worked with Baez say he worked very hard on the case.
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 heard of the 42-year-old Baez.
Born in Puerto Rico, Baez was raised by a single mother who moved to South Florida. After dropping out of Homestead High, he married at 17, became a father, and joined the Navy in 1986. The Orlando Sentinel reported that 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.
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. He also created a nonprofit group, the Miami Domestic Violence Project, but that faltered as well.
Baez was finally admitted to the Florida Bar in September 2005 and was not even qualified to handle a death penalty case like Casey Anthony's without the help of a more experienced lawyer.
Yet 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 most of them have declined to speak with reporters. But Denno noted that Baez's critics were often other lawyers who pointed out the things he was doing wrong, while 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 bumbling, 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 delivered a startling opening statement accusing Casey Anthony's father, George, of molesting her and covering up his Caylee'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.
Good, bad, mediocre, lucky — it doesn't matter what category of lawyer Baez falls into at this point. He will be remembered for saving Casey Anthony's life.
"I think his practice soars. Everybody in America will say, 'Get me Jose Baez,' " said Bob Jarvis, the Nova Southeastern University law professor. "There's going to be an afterglow and we'll see what Jose Baez will do with it. The American people love miracles."
Information from the Orlando Sentinel was included in this report.