For six weeks in 2011, one story dominated the airwaves. Casey Anthony was on trial in Orlando, facing a capital murder charge in the death of her 2-year-old daughter.
The local TV stations brought in prominent lawyers to provide legal analysis. Most of them argued that Jose Baez, Anthony’s unseasoned attorney, was in way over his head. “He hadn’t represented cases of much significance — DUIs and things of that sort,” says defense attorney Bill Sheaffer, who analyzed the case for WFTV. “He floated so many balloons and out-there defense theories. … It really was not impressive.”
But to everyone’s surprise, Anthony was acquitted. Baez became a celebrity, both widely vilified and newly respected.
“Obviously he proved us all wrong,” says Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “I said when that verdict was read that Baez was the luckiest lawyer in America. But given what he has done since, if you have luck after luck after luck, at some point it’s not luck.”
Baez went on to defend NFL star Aaron Hernandez, winning an unexpected acquittal on a double murder charge.
Now the attorney is preparing for the biggest trial of his career, and one that all of Hollywood is awaiting: the rape case against Harvey Weinstein. If convicted, the 66-year-old former movie mogul faces life in prison.
Weinstein is accused of sexually assaulting a former production assistant in 2006 and of raping a second woman at a hotel in 2013. His previous attorney, Benjamin Brafman, argued that the encounters were consensual, and attacked investigators for suppressing evidence. But Brafman and Weinstein fell out over strategy in January, and Brafman withdrew from the case.
After his first appearance as Weinstein’s lawyer, Baez stood on the courthouse steps and declared, “He is innocent,” then said the case would test whether everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
In many ways, Weinstein and Baez are strikingly similar. Weinstein grew up in Queens, Baez in the Bronx. Both were dropouts, both pugnacious and rough around the edges. Both used their flair for publicity and attention-getting theatrics to achieve stunning success.
Weinstein is also almost universally despised, which is Baez’s specialty. Time and again, the lawyer has shown jurors a loathsome client and gotten them to see reasonable doubt.
“He took on the most hated woman in the country,” Sheaffer says. “He might as well take on the most hated man in the country.”
Baez quit school in ninth grade and later enlisted in the Navy. He got a GED and went to community college before transferring to Florida State University. He enrolled in an obscure law school, St. Thomas University, in Miami, and got an internship with the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office, which allowed him to try cases alongside a licensed attorney.
“I remember Jose was particularly zealous,” says Rick De Maria, who was his mentor in the office. “He was receptive to feedback about how to become a better trial lawyer. He would take the training and feedback, and he ran with it.”
Baez was rejected on his first application to the bar, as the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2009. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners faulted him for being delinquent on child support payments and found that he was dishonest about the issue during a hearing.
The board also noted that Baez had attended a diversion program to avoid a criminal charge for writing a bad check, and had failed to disclose that, along with having a simple assault charge, on his law school application.
The board also faulted various acts of “financial irresponsibility” in the wake of his 1990 bankruptcy, including leasing a Mazda Miata for $340 per month.
Baez appealed the board’s decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld it, writing in its ruling that he had shown “a total lack of respect for the rights of others and a total lack of respect for the legal system.” He was ultimately admitted to the bar in 2005, eight years after his first application. At the time of the Sentinel story, he accused the paper of “sensationalist persecution of a Hispanic lawyer.”
Baez demonstrated his aggressive — even reckless — approach to criminal defense in one of his early cases. His client, Nilton Diaz, was accused of murdering his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. In his opening statement, Baez said he would show that the girl’s mother was to blame.
“I’m not going to defend Nilton Diaz,” he said, according to the Sentinel. “I’m going to prosecute Samaris Bobe Silva,” adding that Silva had treated her daughter like “an animal.”
Baez’s strategy was undermined when jurors saw Diaz’s police interrogation video, in which he said he had never seen Silva mistreat her daughter. “She’s a good mother,” Diaz said. “She spoiled her.”
The judge also barred Baez from showing jurors computer animation depicting how Silva might have injured her daughter.
Diaz was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He appealed the conviction on the grounds of ineffective legal assistance, which was denied.
Baez took a similarly hard-charging approach to the Anthony case. He filed a blizzard of pretrial motions and was fined for failing to turn over evidence to the prosecution.
In his opening statement, he said the evidence would show that Anthony had been sexually abused by her father. But Anthony never testified, and no such evidence emerged.
“It was a very high-risk strategy,” Jarvis says. “A lot of people thought, ‘Clearly this is a guy who never handled this kind of case and has no idea what he’s doing.’”
Most Anthony trial watchers credit Baez for delivering a compelling closing argument, in which he held that the prosecution had failed to prove its case. His victory silenced the skeptics.
“He is a master strategist,” Belvin Perry, the judge on the Anthony case, told Variety. “He’s the master at reading jurors and bringing home points that will resonate with them to create that thing called reasonable doubt.”
Baez has since won several other acquittals, demonstrating that the Anthony case was no fluke. Several observers say he has become more polished without losing
In 2017, Baez defended Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end, on a double murder charge. Hernandez had already been convicted of a previous murder and was serving a life sentence. Baez hammered the prosecution’s star witness, suggesting that the witness had shot the victims in a busted drug deal. Five days after the not-guilty verdict, Hernandez committed suicide.
Last year, Baez won an acquittal for David Demos, a bond trader who was charged with fraud in Connecticut. On both cases, Baez teamed with Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Harvard law professor who represented the family of Michael Brown in its wrongful-death suit against the city of Ferguson, Mo. Sullivan is also working on the Weinstein case.
Two months after the Hernandez verdict, Baez won an acquittal for Benjamin Shaw, who was accused of murdering a man in a bar fight in Louisiana.
“He had the prosecution on the defense,” says Martin Stroud, who was Baez’s co-counsel. “It is extraordinary that you see an acquittal in a murder case in Bossier Parish.”
As for the Weinstein case, Stroud says, “he will make it interesting.”