COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Nearly five years after Miami attorney Jose Baez successfully defended NFL star Aaron Hernandez from a double murder conviction, the criminal defense lawyer is back in the spotlight – this time in Columbus.
From Casey Anthony, a mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, to a brief stint on convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein’s defense team, Baez has found his niche in defending celebrity, high-profile clients, even dubbed by some as “the Hispanic version of the late legal legend Johnnie Cochran,” the attorney who helped acquit O.J. Simpson from double murder charges in 1995.
His current client is former Mount Carmel physician William Husel, who’s in the midst of a criminal trial where he faces murder charges in the deaths of 14 patients who died under his care from 2015 to 2018.
While prosecutors argue that Husel administered fatal doses of the opioid painkiller fentanyl that served no therapeutic purpose, Baez and the defense team have contended that Husel was providing comfort care to critically ill patients.
“There is no such thing as a medical murder case,” Baez said during opening statements. “This is not a murder case, and it’s far from it. William Husel was exercising compassion to his patients and tried to free them of pain and let their last moments on Earth be ones of peace.”
Ric Simmons, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said hiring Baez, whom he called “one of the best in the country,” was a smart move by Husel and his team.
“When you’re on trial for your life, you find the best person you can,” Simmons said.
Despite Baez’s historic ability to help his clients get cleared from felony criminal charges, Simmons said it’s possible that Baez’s association with high-profile celebrity clients could hurt the jury’s perception of Husel and his defense team.
“If the jurors are aware of his status as someone who takes high-profile cases, I think that could be detrimental to the defense,” Simmons said.
Baez made headlines in 2011 when Anthony, accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, was acquitted of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child, according to records from Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court.
Prosecutors in Anthony’s case alleged that she gave Caylee chloroform, suffocated her with duct tape, and buried her remains in a wooded area.
But Baez and the defense team contended that the 2-year-old, whose body was so decomposed that a cause of death was impossible to determine, accidentally drowned in a swimming pool – and emphasized the lack of evidence tying Anthony to the crime.
“I think we should all take this as an opportunity to learn and realize that you cannot convict someone until they’ve had their day in court,” Baez said at a news conference following Anthony’s acquittal in July 2011.
After his successful defense of Anthony, Baez was hired to represent defendants in a slew of high-profile cases, including a suspect charged with stabbing a U.S. Air Force sergeant to death and a Florida man accused of murdering a U.S. Army veteran – both of whom were acquitted by a jury.
Notably, Baez served as the lead defense attorney in the late NFL star Aaron Hernandez’s double-murder trial in 2017, who was already serving life in prison for the 2013 murder of semiprofessional football player Odin Lloyd.
“Mr. Hernandez strongly maintains his innocence, and I plan to establish that before a jury of his peers,” Baez said in a news release announcing his decision to defend Hernandez.
During trial, the prosecution contended Hernandez shot and killed two men during a drive-by shooting in Boston after one accidentally spilled a drink on him in a nightclub. Baez and the defense team argued that Hernandez’s friend was to blame, alleging that he shot the men during a drug deal.
On April 14, 2017, Baez made headlines again after a jury acquitted Hernandez. Five days after the acquittal, Hernandez died of suicide in his jail cell.
Regardless of Baez’s past clients, Simmons said Husel is in good hands.
Although Simmons said Baez is a bit more subdued in his legal defense tactics than Johnnie Cochran, he has been laying out an effective case for Husel.
Simmons pointed to Baez’s opening statements, where, in attempts to prove that Husel was providing comfort care, he dramatized the suffering of the patients in a way that put jurors “in the room with the suffering victims.”
“It’s really hard to walk a line between still being a professional lawyer and also letting your jury sympathize with the defendant and show your emotions with the case,” Simmons said.
Not only did Simmons find Baez’s opening statements to be effective, but he also said he was impressed by the defense attorney’s ability to question witnesses on the stand.
“You want to make them seem unreliable, make them seem like their memory’s not good or they’re not prepared,” Simmons said. “He did that without seeming like he was bullying the witnesses.”
Although Simmons said the receipt for Husel’s legal services won’t be cheap, Baez is the attorney any defendant should hire — if they can afford it.
“If you have the money and resources, I don’t know why you wouldn’t do that,” he said.