Several months ago, one of José Baez's most articulate critics wondered whether he would have a "My Cousin Vinny" moment at trial.
The reference to the 1992 Joe Pesci movie was amusing but poignant, too: The comedy explored how a rookie defense lawyer from Brooklyn managed to learn his craft on the fly and spare two young murder suspects from being convicted in a Deep South courtroom.
With Casey Anthony acquitted of the most serious charges against her Tuesday, the pundits debated whether it was Baez's lawyering or the state's circumstantial case that cleared the woman. But one thing is certain: Baez's stock rose mightily with the outcome this trial.
And if America loves a Cinderella story, what better place to have it told than here in Orlando, in the shadow of a castle named for that long-shot winner?
"The best feeling that I have today is that I know I can go home and my daughter will ask me, 'What did you do today?' " Baez said, "and I can say, 'I saved a life.' "
His post-acquittal statement was somewhat tempered and restrained for a personality such as Baez, who has exuded bravado and confidence, despite bloggers dubbing him "Bozo." His self-assurance was more evident in a response he text-messaged to an Orlando Sentinel reporter late Tuesday: "I told you two years ago that I was going to shock the world."
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 they refused to speak with reporters Tuesday. But Denno noted that Baez's critics were often other lawyers who pointed out the things he was doing wrong at trial but 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 bumblings, 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 called out the prosecution — especially retiring Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton — a few times in open court. He delivered a startling opening statement accusing Casey Anthony's father, George, of molesting his daughter and covering up his granddaughter'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.
Chosen by chance
Baez's entry into the international spotlight as Casey Anthony's attorney was a fluke.
An inmate at the Orange County Jail simply recommended Baez to Casey Anthony. Aside from a murder case that gained him some attention in Lake County, Baez was a relative unknown.
But Casey Anthony's case enabled him to rise from obscurity in Central Florida's legal community to a household name.
Brian Pafundi is a recent University of Florida Law School graduate who conducted extensive research on the availability of criminal-discovery records in the Casey Anthony case and what implication that might have on the trial. On Tuesday, he called Baez "an inspiration."
"What criminal-defense attorneys do and, more specifically, what Mr. Baez did, they represent the underdog," Pafundi said. "They represent public enemy No. 1. They are the ones who the general public dislike and sometimes even hate solely because they are fulfilling a constitutional duty."
That Baez, 42, could withstand the vitriol and aspersions cast at him and still put on a strong case and "advocate so vigorously on behalf of his client" was even more impressive, Pafundi said.
"Not only did he not let the public sentiment impact his advocacy, but he also didn't let the gravity of the situation overwhelm him," Pafundi said.
Toward the end of the trial — but before the verdict — even the local television legal analysts who were among Baez's harshest critics were starting to say some complimentary things about him.
Several days before the verdicts came, WFTV-Channel 9 legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said Baez had the makings of a "good trial lawyer." His personable demeanor, emotional intelligence and toughness helped him, Sheaffer said.
"He takes a licking and keeps on ticking," Sheaffer said. "There's no quit in this guy."
He likened Baez to a football player just out of college and thrust into the Super Bowl. He has "good instincts" but a lack of experience that had not allowed him to hone his skills, Sheaffer said.
Before the verdicts, WESH-Channel 2 legal analyst Richard Hornsby said that, despite Baez's courtroom problems, he knew the forensics and the evidence in the case as well as anyone. On Tuesday, after the verdicts, Hornsby praised Baez's closing argument and said it "closed the deal."
"He was able to sell to that jury the common-sense explanation of the forensics," Hornsby said. "It appealed to an ordinary, common person, not a scientist."
Prickly with media
Though Baez's relationships with legal colleagues in Central Florida may have suffered during the past three years, his relationship with the media became even more tortured.
Always more comfortable asking questions than answering them, Baez was quick to cut off reporters who he decided were not helping him or his client. When confronted with legal problems in court and questions about his ability to handle a case of this magnitude early this year, Baez asked one reporter, "Who are you?" before hanging up. Then he called back to say his statements were off the record.
On Tuesday, Baez refused to take questions and only made statements with his defense team standing behind him and the cameras in front. He opined on how this case proves why the death-penalty system is wrong. And he saw it challenging both the criminal-justice system and the media.
"You cannot convict someone until they've had their day in court," he said.
Baez also praised the prosecutors with whom he had battled all these years, saying the three of them "serve the state of Florida very well."
But for all of Baez's graciousness Tuesday, the man who was looking for a "My Cousin Vinny" moment back at the start of the year, said Baez didn't show him a sudden understanding of what it takes to be a quality criminal-defense lawyer.
"Jose Baez never had that moment," said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. "What we saw today is: It is better to be lucky than to be good. He won this case because the state lost the case. He really is the luckiest man in America."
Luck may be an apt descriptor for Baez. He was admitted to The Florida Bar in late September 2005 and was not even qualified to handle a death-penalty case without the help of a more experienced lawyer.
He is still awaiting the outcome of a Bar complaint that surfaced at the start of this year. He has been cleared in several other Bar complaints involving his ethics and professionalism.
Good, bad, mediocre, lucky — even Jarvis acknowledges that 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 José Baez,' " Jarvis said. "There's going to be an afterglow, and we'll see what José Baez will do with it. The American people love miracles."
email@example.com or 407-420-5447.