In October 2008, the State of Florida charged Casey Marie Anthony with first-degree murder in the death of her two-year-old child, Caylee Marie Anthony. The matter was highly publicized and dominated the national news for years. From May to June 2011, Casey Anthony stood jury trial and was represented by criminal trial lawyer, Jose Baez, in what Time Magazine called the “Social Media Trial of the Century.” Jose Baez shocked many legal pundits and even most public opinion when he ultimately secured a verdict of “not guilty” for Casey Anthony on her murder charges, along with charges of aggravated manslaughter and aggravated child abuse.
The verdict had a high price, however. Jose Baez billed $397.431.78 in legal fees for his representation. Not only that, but Casey Anthony became financially dogged elsewhere with lawsuits associated with her daughter’s death. For example, she was sued for defamation by a former babysitter, Zenaida Gonzalez, a person whom Casey Anthony initially blamed for the disappearance. Ms. Anthony was also sued for fraud and unjust enrichment by Texas EquuSearch, a company that spent at least $100,000 in searching for Caylee Anthony even though Casey Anthony already knew that Caylee was dead.
For these reasons, among others, Casey Anthony, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on January 25, 2013, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida to avoid and discharge these debts. (See Case No. 8:13-bk-00922). In the bankruptcy, Casey Anthony listed assets of only $1,084.00 and liabilities of $724,918.25, which included the legal fees for Jose Baez. After exemptions under Florida law, the only collectible asset was Casey Anthony’s rights to publish her story, which the trustee valued at $25,000.00. The bankruptcy court discharged Casey Anthony from her debts on December 17, 2013.
On January 30, 2015, the bankruptcy trustee released his final report in wrapping up the case. In the report, the trustee disclosed that, after his fees and then his attorneys’ fees, there will be a whopping $0.00 left for Casey Anthony’s creditors, like Jose Baez and Texas EquuSearch. Martin E. Comas first reported this matter in the Orlando Sentinel (See “Casey Anthony’s attorney should not receive bankruptcy settlement money, trustees say.”)
But how could Casey Anthony receive a discharge and walk away from the very legal fees that essentially secured her freedom? Without such representation, she may have been imprisoned right now for the murder of her child. Her thanks? She straight up stiffed her attorney. The answer is that Jose Baez, like many credit card companies and judgment creditors, was simply an unsecured creditor in Ms. Anthony’s bankruptcy and pre-petition legal fees have no special priority, like taxes, alimony, or child support, under the Bankruptcy Code. Even if the fees somehow had priority, Ms. Anthony still had no assets and, therefore, no money to distribute to her creditors.
Jose Baez was left holding the bag and essentially became a high-profile, pro bono attorney. That said, don’t be sad for him. Jose Baez could have protected himself by requiring a large retainer in advance for his services. And if she could not pay, then he could have declined her case. It’s just that Mr. Baez likely gambled and took the case for publicity and the ability to capitalize on the trial himself. In fact, he wrote a book about Ms. Anthony and the trial. So, to an extent, he was indirectly paid for his services in form of proceeds from the book and from the subsequent publicity he received as an attorney and the future cases that likely come with it.