JOSE BAEZ: IS HE TODAY’S JOHNNIE COCHRAN?
Locked inside of a California maximum-security prison cell, I was not able to follow the Casey Anthony trial as closely as most. My information came from the local news and occasional talk show, not the genre-focused shows with “experts” like Nancy Grace or Geraldo Rivera. Despite this, even from what I saw, I believed Casey Anthony had killed little Caylee, her 2-year-old daughter, and with evidence stacked earth-to-moon against her, there was no way she was going to be found anything but guilty.
But then she was — found not guilty, that is — and like the rest of America, I was stunned. The last time I’d been this stunned from a courtroom verdict was when OJ Simpson was found not guilty in the brutal murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. But that was done via “dream team,” with some of the best criminal defense lawyers in the world working together, headed by legal genius Johnnie Cochran, and millions of dollars to fund it all. Casey didn’t have a dream team. She had some unknown guy by the name of Jose Baez. Someone nobody cared about, or even respected. Until now, of course. And as a prisoner serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a 1998 murder, who, like every other prisoner, fantasizes about one day maybe being able to hire a super-lawyer to get me out of prison, I had one question: Who the fuck is Jose Baez?
Jose Baez was born on September 17, 1970 to Puerto Rican parents in Manhattan, New York, and raised in the Bronx, New York and South Florida. After his parents split, when he was four years old, his mother worked several jobs to support him and his three half-sisters.
Jose attended Homestead High School, in Florida, but dropped out in the ninth grade. At age 17, he got married and became a father. Shortly after getting married, he got his GED and joined the Navy. He spent the next three years assigned in connection with NATO, at Norfolk, Virginia, trained as an intelligence analyst, and held a top-secret security clearance.
In 1989 Jose left the Navy, attended Miami-Dade Community College, then transferred to Florida State University, where he earned his BA. He then enrolled in St. Thomas University, an obscure law school in Miami, and in 1996, the summer after his second year at St. Thomas, Jose accepted an internship at the state attorney’s office. On the first day, however, he realized being a prosecutor wasn’t right for him, so the next day he walked into the Miami-Dade public defender’s office, where he interned and was allowed to try cases alongside a licensed attorney. The Miami-Dade public defender’s office has a scrappy reputation and is known for turning out first-rate attorneys, and this allowed Jose to really hone his skill. Rick De Maria, Jose’s mentor in the office, would later say, “Jose was incredibly aggressive. Always ready to fight. Most young defenders tend to want to cut deals. Not Jose. He wanted to be in the courtroom.”
While in law school, Baez’s attraction to defense work was intensified by the OJ Simpson trial, which Jose would sneak out of his law classes to watch on TV. He was immensely inspired and impressed by F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, and Barry Scheck, but it was lead-attorney Johnnie Cochran who really captivated him. “Johnnie’s gift was bonding with the jury — the little things that he does to engage them,” Jose would later say. “Johnnie was more concerned with the jury than he was his own self, or his ego. A lot of lawyers aren’t that way.”
But after Jose graduated law school in 1997, his career as an attorney had a major setback. He was denied admission into the Florida State Bar due to “financial irresponsibility,” which included bounced checks, $100,000 in student debt loans, a bankruptcy, and $12,000 in child support owed, to who was now his ex-wife. Unable to get a job as an attorney, he worked as a defense investigator, before getting a job with LexisNexis, training lawyers to do legal research. Then, in 2005, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners admitted Jose after he demonstrated he’d “rehabilitated himself.”
After getting his license, Jose focused primarily on criminal defense cases. One was the case of Elvira Garcia, a Mexican immigrant accused of kidnapping a child she’d adopted as her own. This case was ultimately dropped.
Another case was the murder trial of Nilton Diaz, who was accused of killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. This case got some media attention in Orlando and Puerto Rico, because the victim was the granddaughter of World Boxing Champion Wilfredo Vazquez. In his opening statement Baez said he would show the girl’s mother was to blame, not the boyfriend. According to the Sentinel, Baez said in an interview, “I’m not going to defend Nilton Diaz, I’m going to prosecute Samaris Bobe Silva,” adding that she treated her daughter like “an animal.” Ultimately Diaz was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder, and instead convicted of manslaughter, where he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. And while some may see this as a loss; as a man serving life without the possibility of parole, let me tell you, it is not.
Enter: Casey Anthony.
In 2008, Casey Anthony’s 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, went missing. Soon, little Caylee would be found dead, wrapped in trash bags, buried not far from her home. Casey was ultimately charged in the death of Caylee, where prosecutors claimed she murdered her daughter so she could resume her party-girl lifestyle without the “burden” of caring for Caylee; part of the evidence prosecutors presented were pictures of the sexy Casey, partying during the time Caylee was supposedly missing. Unsurprisingly, the case got national media attention, and pictures of the beautiful little Caylee with the big, hopeful eyes, were on news stations everywhere, resulting in a universal hatred for the mother accused of killing her.
After an unexpected referral, Casey got in touch with Jose Baez, who’d then been a member of the Bar for less than three years. He was immediately cast into the national spotlight, as well as scandal; rumors swirled that Casey was providing sex in exchange for Jose’s services. (This was not true. Casey paid for Baez’s services with money she made licensing pictures of Caylee to ABC News.)
Fast-forward to 2011. The Casey Anthony trial would captivate the country and dominate the airwaves. Time magazine dubbed it “The Social Media Trial of the Century.” Nobody took Anthony’s trial lawyer, Jose Baez serious. He was laughed at; the butt of the jokes; the courtroom jester — the schmuck in a bad suit. Only his fifth murder case, legal experts argued he had no clue as to what he was doing — he was in way over his head. He didn’t even seem to know the rules of evidence, they said. He was even fined for failing to turn evidence over to the prosecution. They criticized the hard-charging approach he took by filing a blizzard of pre-trial motions, and because, as said by defense attorney Bill Sheaffer, who analyzed the case for WFTV, “He floated so many balloons and out-there defense theories…. It was really not impressive.” One claim Baez made who many thought was “out there” was done during his opening statement, when he said that evidence would show Casey had been sexually abused by her father. (No such evidence emerged.)
“It was a very high-risk strategy,” says Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “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.’”
But then, to the surprise of the nation – the world – even, Casey Anthony was acquitted. Baez became a celebrity overnight, both widely respected and vilified.
“Clearly he proved us all wrong,” said Jarvis. Most Anthony-trial watchers credit Baez for delivering a compelling closing argument, holding that the prosecution failed to prove its case. Some critics were silenced, but others said he was just lucky.
Perhaps. But then he did it again.
After representing Anthony, Baez was brought on to assist attorney Chris Lejuez in representing millionaire businessman Gary Giordano, in Aruba, who’d been detained for 116 days in connection with the disappearance of Robyn Gardner. On November 28, 2011, Aruba’s High Court released Giordano, deciding against filing official charges.
Still lucky? Perhaps. But then he did it again.
In October of 2013, Baez was hired to defend a 12-year-old arrested in connection with the death of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, whose mother claimed was bullied to the point of committing suicide. In the end, all charged were dropped against Baez’s client.
Enter: Aaron Hernandez.
I was shocked in June of 2013 when I saw that NFL superstar Aaron Hernandez had been arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd. I immediately took interest in the case because I connected with Hernandez. I felt like him trading his great success for a prison cell is what I’ve done. Not that I’m a pro athlete or worth millions of dollars, but I feel like I’m meant to do much more than rot away in a prison cell, and could have been very successful. And now it seemed Hernandez was taking the same path. I followed the case as much as I could from my prison cell, and in April of 2015, Hernandez was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, just like me.
As shocked as I was at Hernandez’s first murder charge, I was even more shocked when I learned Hernandez was charged with a separate, double murder, in which he would face trial. Who is this guy? I thought to myself. What is he doing? He was in the NFL, worth millions, living a dream! What made him run around on the streets like a common gang-banger, shootin’ shit up? Dude is trippin’!
It was early 2016 when Jose Baez received a letter from Aaron, claiming innocence in the double murder and requesting representation. Baez was initially hesitant to represent Hernandez, but decided to meet with him, and when he did, instantly felt a connection. They bonded and Baez agreed to help him.
When Baez and his team began work on the case, like most cases he takes on, they were at a huge disadvantage. The prosecution had a 2-year head start, and since Hernandez was already in prison serving LWOP for the Odin murder, everyone already assumed he was guilty. Some people even thought he might be a serial killer. After all, Hernandez was Massachusetts’s most infamous killer since Lizzie Borden.
To make matters worse, Hernandez’s one-time friend, Alexander Bradley, who was with Hernandez the night of the double murder, and who Hernandez later shot, supposedly to eliminate the only witness to the murder, was going to be the prosecutor’s star witness and point the finger at Hernandez as the killer. Bradley was somebody Baez worried about. Bradley had testified in Hernandez’s previous murder trial and Baez studied his testimony closely. And though a known drug dealer, Bradley was smart, charming, and a compelling storyteller.
Baez’s strategy was to aggressively attack Bradley from the start of the trial, hammering to the jury that he was a violent gangster and drug lord. He declared that it was Bradley who had killed the two men, after a drug deal gone bad, and that the state had made a “deal with the devil,” offering him immunity for testifying against Hernandez. Baez’s aggressive approach and bold accusation that Bradley was the real killer caused spectators in the courtroom to gasp. This type of stunning accusation has become classic Baez. Declaring that the prosecution’s star witness was the real killer was compared to when he told the Anthony jury that her father had sexually abused her. Later, Baez would say about such claims, “I don’t have to prove anything. That burden resides with the prosecution. I deal in reasonable doubt.”
During the three brutal days of cross-examining Bradley, Baez got him to describe his decade-plus-long career as a violent drug dealer. Baez depicted Bradley as a liar, whose initial motive was to get money from Hernandez, which is why he filed a civil court claim against him in 2013. Baez read text messages in court that Bradley had sent to Hernandez, after when he says Hernandez had shot him. To Baez’s claim that Bradley’s intent was to get money from Hernandez, Bradley said, “At a point, that became my intent.”
“You wanted to kill him,” Baez stated.
“Yes,” Bradley admitted.
“Because you’re a killer!” Baez shot back.
Baez then read more text messages of Bradley’s where he mentioned all the guns he had, such as MACs and AKs. As he did this, he put pictures of each gun on the overhead projector for the jury to see. These were serious guns! The kind used in mass murders and gangland slayings! He then read off a text where Bradley wrote that he had “wolves on deck.”
“Does this mean shooters?” Baez asked.
“Wolves to me just means friends of mine. Friends that are violent,” Bradley admitted.
On the ropes, Baez read a text Bradley had sent to his lawyer in 2013 after agreeing to testify for the grand jury: “Now u sure once I withdraw this lawsuit [I] won’t be held on perjury after I tell the truth about me not recalling anything about who shot me?” This caused the prosecution team to panic.
“The truth!” Baez exclaimed to the jury.
Then Baez asked the judge if they could recess for lunch and he agreed; leaving this the last thing the jurors heard before leaving the courtroom.
Once the trial was over, the jury deliberated for six days. On April 14, 2017, they came back with their verdict: not guilty.
Son of a bitch; Baez did it again.
Then again. Although a lesser-known case, in June of 2017, Baez won an acquittal for Benjamin Shaw. Benjamin had been on vacation in Shreveport, Louisiana when he killed a man in a bar fight. The victim, Zacharia Casagrande, who was unarmed, was stabbed 10 times. During the trial Baez was able to convince the jury that Casagrande, a military man in a military town, had been the initial aggressor. Baez’s argument of self-defense was successful, and Shaw was acquitted of the murder.
So, the question becomes, or at least the one I present to you here is, is Jose Baez today’s Johnnie Cochran? He’s certainly earned comparison. Geraldo Rivera has even dubbed him “Juanie Cochran.”
Or, could it be said that Jose Baez is even better than Johnnie Cochran was? After reviewing his track record, I think the argument can certainly be made. That said, I suspect it would become like the arguments over whether or not Kobe was better than Jordan, or Lebron better than Kobe.
So, what is it that makes the once-laughed-at schmuck with the bad suit so successful? Perhaps it’s his loyalty to his clients; his dedication; his intense focus. Linda Kenney Baden, an attorney who’s worked on three cases with Baez, says he’s “single-minded to the point he will end up in the hospital. He just doesn’t care about his health; he will do what he has to do for the client.”
Such single-mindedness has led to prosecutors and legal analysts to criticize Baez, saying he lets his clients’ interest muddy any concern for the truth. But to this Baez says, “It’s not for me to decide who’s innocent and who’s guilty.” He adds that even something as seemingly concrete as a confession cannot be trusted, and points to the case of Kevin Fox, who confessed to raping and killing his 3-year-old daughter until DNA evidence exonerated him. “Unless we have something where we can go back in time, or if it’s on actual video, there’s very little we can do as lawyers to try and know exactly what happened,” he says. When it comes to defending a criminal defendant, Baez explains, “You have to operate like a doctor. A doctor comes in the emergency room and no matter the race or the background or what the patient has done in their life, the doctor is still going to try to save them.” The outcome is “really for the jury to decide. I don’t take that out of the jury’s hands. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, he’s so good that he’s going to get murderers off.’ I don’t get anybody off. It’s the jury who makes their decision.”
Martin Healy, the COO of the Massachusetts Bar Association says Baez is “masterful at identifying small holes in the government’s case and driving large questions through those holes.” And to criticize Baez for his relentless pursuit of reasonable doubt, he says, is unfair. “Is he different than the average criminal-defense attorney? You bet. He’s fearless. He walks right up to the line of what’s ethical. He holds no regard for the media or his critics. It’s all about the client.”
“He’s a master strategist,” says Belvin Perry, the judge in the Anthony trial. “He’s a master at reading jurors and bringing home points that will resonate with them and create that thing called reasonable doubt.”
Bob Jarvis, the law professor mentioned earlier, says of Baez, “I said when that verdict [in the Anthony trial] was read that Baez was the luckiest lawyer in America. But given what he’s done since, if you have luck after luck after luck, at some point it’s not luck.”
Perhaps a large part of Jose’s magic sauce is that he just “really loves practicing law,” can’t see himself doing anything else, and his belief that we all deserve a second chance. After all, he’s had a few second chances of his own….
One thing for sure, as a prisoner serving LWOP, I’ve always dreamed of one day being able to hire Johnnie Cochran, because to have him on your side provides the ultimate hope to a man in my position. So when he passed, I was devastated because the hope of him someday coming to my rescue, no matter how far-fetched that hope may’ve been, was lost forever.
Or so I thought.
It looks like Johnnie may’ve passed the baton, to a Puerto Rican in Miami: Jose Baez, aka Juanie Cochran.
Mike Enemigo is America’s #1 incarcerated author with over 25 books published, and many more on the way. Among them are Conspiracy Theory, which is about the murder for which he is serving LWOP, and OJ’s Life Behind Bars, with inmate-author Vernon Nelson, which is about Vernon’s time with OJ Simpson in a Nevada prison. Learn more about Mike and his books at thecellblock.net, where you can also follow his blog, and be sure to follow him on all social media at @mikeenemigo and @thecellblockofficial.