BOSTON — Defense attorney Jose Baez became famous in 2011 when he helped a young Florida mother named Casey Anthony beat charges that she murdered her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
He managed that, in part, by somehow arguing to a jury that Caylee died accidentally and that someone other than Casey found the body and decided to hide it in the Florida woods rather than call the cops. Oh, and it was perfectly understandable that Casey didn’t report her daughter missing for a month.
Viewed in that context, Baez’s challenge as Aaron Hernandez’s defense attorney may not be so daunting. He is simply arguing that Alexander Bradley, a violent drug dealer who is currently incarcerated on gun charges – and not Hernandez – was the triggerman in a 2012 double homicide.
If Baez can pull that off with a Suffolk County jury, Hernandez has an excellent chance of being found not guilty of killing Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in a drive-by shooting after a brief encounter earlier at a Boston nightclub.
Hernandez, a former star for the New England Patriots, is already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in Massachusetts for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. Prosecutors are trying this case because Hernandez is appealing his first conviction, as well as in an effort to close a double-murder case and provide justice to the family and friends of Abreu and Furtado.
Two-and-a-half weeks into this trial and Hernandez’s guilt is by no means concrete. Prosecutors have struggled to directly establish Hernandez as the gunman, leaving the very real possibility of a not-guilty verdict or mistrial.
Which may bring everything down to Baez, the smooth Florida attorney, and Bradley, who proved to be a strong and difficult-to-rattle witness in Hernandez’s first murder trial but comes with enormous baggage and a lengthy rap sheet of his own.
“A deal with the devil,” Baez called the state’s decision to grant Bradley immunity in this case in exchange for his testimony.
It may not have had a choice. Bradley is the state’s star witness. He was reportedly at Suffolk Superior Court on Friday, although he was not called to testify. He may take the stand as early as Monday, according to Ted Daniel of Fox-TV Boston.
The defense does not need to present the jury with an alternative theory on what happened. (It doesn’t need to present a defense at all, actually. The burden of proof is entirely on the state). It sure does help, though, to be able to claim that not only did the defendant not do it, but this other horrible person did.
Bradley serves as a compelling fall guy. He is a convicted drug dealer who Baez deemed “a violent drug trafficker” in his opening statement. Bradley is certainly violent – he is currently serving a five-year sentence in Connecticut for shooting up a bar in Hartford. That occurred after he, himself, was shot three times in the leg over a dispute about owed money. Rather than seek medical treatment, Bradley went to his car, grabbed a gun, then returned to the bar and started blasting away.
Baez says that is par for the course for a guy who is a feared gangster in Connecticut.
“No one crosses [Bradley],” Baez said during opening statements. “A man like that is to be respected. A man like that is to be feared.”
Bradley’s résumé is just one opening for Baez.
The state’s theory of the case is that Hernandez grew enraged after Abreu bumped into him at a nightclub, causing a drink to spill. That led to Hernandez waiting for Abreu and his friends outside the club, then pulling alongside them in a car driven by Bradley where Hernandez opened fired with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.
However, the prosecution has provided limited evidence or witness testimony of that encounter or even proof of a spilled drink. Even if it was true, Baez says it’s impossible to imagine Hernandez would kill two people over such an incident, especially when as the far bigger man he could have easily just beat him up.
“That’s ridiculous,” Baez said in opening statements. “It’s absurd.”
Instead, Baez argued, it was Bradley who had a dispute with Abreu over a drug deal gone bad. While there is also no evidence of that, Baez has pushed hard. Abreu’s family and friends have vehemently denied such a thing did or would occur, describing him as a peaceful former police officer in Cape Verde who immigrated to America and worked as a janitor to help his family.
As for Bradley, he will be the only eyewitness who will put the gun in Hernandez’s hand.
Baez will focus on a few items, though. Bradley will not dispute he was also armed that night. And as the driver of the SUV, it was he, not Hernandez, who ran a red light so he could pull up alongside Abreu and Furtado’s car. He is expected to testify that he was acting under Hernandez’s orders, but if he was trying to defuse the situation, why act so aggressively?
Maybe most notably, the gun shots came out of the driver’s side window, meaning Bradley had the easiest access to open fire on the other car. The state is arguing that Hernandez, riding in the passenger’s seat, reached across Bradley and shot out the driver’s side window. Baez will question whether there was even enough room for that considering both men’s size.
Baez promises to argue that Bradley did the killings and the reason Hernandez not only failed to report the crime but helped cover up the murders by stashing the SUV they were driving in a garage at a house connected to him, is because he feared any involvement would put his NFL career at risk.
Baez will also have to argue away a 2013 incident where Bradley claims Hernandez shot him in the face after a night out in Florida. Bradley lost his right eye in that attack, but survived after supposedly being dumped out of the car.
The state says that was an attempted silencing of an eyewitness. Baez says it makes no sense, Bradley had a beef with another group of violent men and tried to use the incident to blackmail Hernandez for hush money.
Further, Baez will argue that Bradley is simply ratting out his former friend to avoid prosecution via a plea deal.
Needless to say, in this entire sordid tale full of betrayal and incomprehensible actions, this is the most sordid corner – a one-eyed violent drug dealer testifying against a convicted murderer who inexplicably kicked away a $40 million NFL career. There are no sympathetic figures in this exchange.
There is, however, a prosecutorial team who needs the jury to accept Bradley’s version of events that night. And there is a skilled, if controversial defense attorney eager for a chance to cross-examine a ripe-for-the-picking state witness. And there is Bradley, who showed himself to be smart, disciplined and unshaken in the face of a strong cross-examination in Hernandez’s first trial.
Jose Baez wasn’t Hernandez’s attorney then, however. And he has sold less likely stories to juries in the past. If he can deliver on this one, this Hernandez trial may flip on a dime.