ORLANDO, Fla. — Three years ago, Jose Baez's name was barely a blip in the legal community.
This was a lawyer who made his way to the profession after dropping out of high school, getting a GED and going into the Navy. He tried several failed businesses — including two bikini companies — before he eventually enrolled at Florida State University and St. Thomas University School of Law. It took another eight years for him to be admitted to the bar.
Now he's arguably one of the most recognizable attorneys in the country after his client Casey Anthony was acquitted in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, in a case marked by a captivated national audience and searing scrutiny of every legal twist.
For the last three years since, Baez faced questions from other attorneys and TV commentators about his lack of criminal law experience and tactics. Now he's a legal celebrity almost certain to be offered interviews, book offers and possibly movie deals that could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"I think this is obviously life-altering for Jose Baez," said Terry Lenamon, a former member of Anthony's defense team, who left the case in 2008 after a disagreement over strategy.Video: What’s next for Casey Anthony? (on this page)
"It's not as big as (the) OJ (Simpson verdict), but close to OJ and look at all what happened to those lawyers ... I'm sure he's going to capitalize on it. The issue is: Was that always the plan?"
A winding path into law
Baez, 42, took Anthony's case pro bono in 2008, after getting a referral from a former client who shared a cell with Anthony following her initial arrest. He has handled the case since then, operating on state funds available to Anthony because of her indigent status, and from an early $200,000 she received from licensing photos and videos to ABC News.
The Associated Press attempted to contact Baez for this story, but those inquiries were not immediately returned.
In an interview with Fox News' Geraldo Rivera the night of the verdict, Baez shrugged off a question about whether his success in this case will silence his detractors.
"I think their competence argument has fallen," he said. "What they want to say about me, well, you know, they can say what they want."Story: Casey Anthony trial: Who's 'Lawyer Gaga'?
Baez, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York and Florida, had to take a winding path to becoming a criminal lawyer, even after he graduated law school. He passed the written test for the Florida Bar, but he was denied admission by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners because of a list of complaints about his personal and financial conduct.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld the bar's decision in 2000 for not paying child support for a daughter he had with his first wife and for what it called "very serious doubts as to his respect for the rights of others and for the law," like writing worthless checks.
He eventually was able to prove to the bar he was rehabilitated and he was admitted to practice law in 2005. He has had no disciplinary action taken against him by the bar since then.Facebook video of Anthony 'confessing' is fake
Alfredo Garcia, the former dean at St. Thomas, didn't know Baez when he was a student at St. Thomas and prior to his graduation in 1997. But he said he got to know him shortly after he took on Anthony's case.
Garcia said the school gave Baez, who also ran a pair of non-profit organizations before he began his law practice, an alumni award in 2008 for providing disabled children in foreign countries with prostheses.
He said at the award dinner Baez showed him a yellowed copy of his acceptance letter to the law school. The letter had been signed by Garcia, ironically a law school classmate of Anthony prosecutor Jeff Ashton at the University of Florida.
"(Baez) said, 'I've held on to this since I received this. This is the letter you wrote when you were associate dean and chair of the committee that admitted me into law school.' He still had that with him," Garcia said. " ... Obviously, that meant a lot to him because he took time to show it to me and had it with him."
Garcia said he also had lunch with Baez in Orlando last August as Baez was preparing for the trial.Story: Casey Anthony attorney: ‘She did not kill her child’
They talked about the "emotional, personal and professional toll that the case had taken on him."
"I think it was a rough emotional toll, to the extent that you get identified with your client typically by the members of the public," Garcia said. "I gathered he wasn't the most popular person in Orlando at the time. I think that was pretty tough."
'I really think people underestimated him'
During his closing argument, Ashton likened the theories presented by Baez and the defense of how Caylee Anthony died in part as a fantasy "trip down the rabbit hole into a bizarre world."
Ashton and Baez constantly sparred throughout the three-year case. Each accused the other of questionable legal maneuvering, and once during a pretrial hearing, Ashton even asked Judge Belvin Perry to hold Baez in contempt of court for what Ashton claimed was a blatant disregard of a court-ordered deadline.
Then there was the incident during Baez's closing arguments, in which he angrily referred to Ashton as "this laughing guy" when he observed him chuckling behind his hand in full view of the jury.Story: Casey Anthony refuses jail visit from her mother
But in his first comments after Anthony's acquittal, Baez seemed to have put that bad blood behind him.
He referred to the prosecution team as a whole as "a fine group," called Ashton "a fierce opponent" and lead prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick "an incredible adversary" and "one of the best lawyers I've ever seen."
With constant objections that were overruled and motions denied, Baez's legal skills were often maligned on cable television programs that sometimes depicted him as a sort of Barney Fife, the bumbling deputy on the 1960s TV sitcom "The Andy Griffith Show" who was only allowed to carry one bullet. Lenamon said any of those sentiments that the jury saw in court via the judge or prosecution — however small — could have played a role in the case's outcome.
"They see things like the prosecutor snickering during the defense's closing argument," Lenamon said. "And little things like that can change everything. What they see is a lawyer that may not look to be super-experienced, fighting hard to save his client. That plays into the final formula. It's not as simple and easy as everyone tries to make it out to be."
Lenamon said he expects Baez's star to continue rising.
"The bottom line is he pulled it off in a very favorable way," he said. "I have to tip my hat to him on that and congratulate him. I really think people underestimated him."
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