Order in His Court
The Casey Anthony trial may be the most sensational murder case since O.J., but don’t expect any courtroom showboating. With Judge Belvin Perry Jr. presiding, justice is serious business.
The Honorable Belvin Perry Jr., presiding over Courtroom 23 in the Orange County Courthouse, where Casey Anthony will be tried next month for first-degree murder.
Photo By Norma Lopez Molina
Compared with the forbidding efficiency of the public waiting area on the 20th floor of the Orange County Courthouse, the inner sanctum of the judges’ chambers is as cozy as the Gryffindor common room—a chamber of secrets where the men and women who hold up the scales of justice come to hang up their robes and be alone with their thoughts behind a locked door.
This smiling man, with his steaming cup of coffee—cream and sugar—and morning paper, could just as well be wearing pajamas and slippers as the tailored gray barrister pinstripe, cut long and cool, in a fashion favored by jazz musicians. He looks that comfortable. You get the sense that you are walking into his house.
With good reason. Except for a two-year hiatus, Belvin Perry Jr. has been chief judge of the 9th Judicial Circuit since 1995. He oversaw the construction of this building, and particularly Courtroom 23 (officially the Roger A. Barker Courtroom)—a high-tech digital cathedral of justice where Perry will preside over the first-degree murder trial of 25-year-old Casey Anthony, an impending courtroom miniseries that has been nearly three years in the making and is expected to run at least six weeks. Beginning May 9, when jury selection begins in a county other than Orange, Perry will operate under a microscope that will enlarge exponentially his role in a trial certain to be followed by millions. More than 200 media outlets are expected in Orlando to cover the Anthony trial once proceedings move here, possibly by May 16. A vacant lot across from the courthouse will be transformed into a media city, populated by satellite antennas and picture-perfect hair. Credentials requests alone have already necessitated the creation of a remote viewing area in the downtown courthouse, with a live feed supplied by truTV.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Karen Connolly Levey, a 20-year courthouse worker in charge of media coordination.
What the viewing world will see is a judge whose personality is uniquely suited for handling a trial of this magnitude. Perry’s courtroom demeanor is all business, as he sets the pace that opposing attorneys are expected to keep. He is a man of few words, and when he speaks in court not a word is wasted on idle chitchat or grandstanding. Perry seems to have been born to be a judge: He has weathered isolation since childhood, having grown up black in a segregated society, the son of a man who upheld the law and a woman who taught school. Perry’s upbringing was by the book—with a strict interpretation of it—and was based on the credo that actions have consequences.
Defense attorneys Cheney Mason (left) and José Baez represent Casey Anthony.
Though it could be argued that, in substance, the Anthony case is no more significant than the Orlando-based death-penalty trials of serial killers Ted Bundy (1979), Judy Buenoano (the breakout case for Perry while he worked as a prosecutor in 1984) or Aileen Wuornos (1992), the sheer intensity of news coverage alone in this age of Twitter, Nancy Grace and smart phones makes comparisons to the O.J. Simpson murder trial unavoidable. For a while the Anthony defense even included a so-called “dream team” of high-profile attorneys and expert witnesses, among them Dr. Henry Lee, the forensic specialist whose testimony proved pivotal in Simpson’s acquittal. As in the Simpson trial, the evidence against Anthony is largely circumstantial, and the exact cause of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee’s death, though ruled a homicide, remains a mystery.
It will be the “biggest criminal trial since O.J.,” Orlando criminal defense lawyer Mark NeJame says of the upcoming Anthony trial. NeJame knows the case intimately, having represented the defendant’s parents, Cindy and George Anthony, in the early stages of the investigation into their granddaughter’s disappearance and death. Back then, the Anthonys’ east Orange County home was the center of a daily drama, with mobs outside threatening vigilante justice. The national TV-news media played a role in inciting the rage, a point NeJame made in a contentious exchange with the hyper-agitated Grace on her talk show one night.
Interestingly enough, Perry has a coincidental connection to the Simpson case and the national media exposure that came with it. Avid Court TV (now truTV) viewers who watched the Simpson trial in 1995 may remember that coverage of an Orlando murder case preceded the West Coast broadcast. A jury in Naples, where the case had been moved, convicted Thomas Gudinas of raping and murdering an Orlando woman, and Perry, the judge in the case, sentenced him to death. Watching the Gudinas and Simpson trials back-to-back, viewers got to see two very different judges at work—Simpson Judge Lance Ito had a propensity to showboat while Perry ran his trial with quiet efficiency.
Which is how he has handled the Anthony case so far. And from all indications, that won’t change.
“He will not play to the media,” says NeJame.
There was a time when Perry might have viewed a sensational case like this as an opportunity that could lead to a loftier bench, such as the 5th District Court of Appeals or even the Florida Supreme Court. But at 61, he isn’t looking any further into the future than presiding over the Anthony trial and running for re-election in 2012. After another six-year term, there’s retirement, and Perry says he looks forward to playing golf.
AT FIVE-FOOT-FIVE, and broad in the beam, Perry’s stature is of the earned, not physical, variety. His soft, slow speech and droopy eyelids give him the appearance of being half-asleep. But his twitchy leg reveals a constant nervous energy, causing his chair to shake incessantly. His teddy bear build and mellow manner could fool you into underestimating his drive and intellect, but Perry is, by all accounts, a brilliant jurist respected by his peers, who have selected him to represent them as chief judge an unprecedented
A typical workday for Perry starts around six o’clock with Our Daily Bread (a pocket-sized book of scripture and prayer), a two-egg omelet and toast, and a scan of the morning papers at Daily News Café near the courthouse. It’s a public restaurant, but Perry has dibs on the same corner table each morning. It’s his personal space, and he shares it with only a few lawyers he has known for quite some time, judging by their banter and the gray in their hair.
Judges have to be careful with whom they associate —and what they say. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is, in itself, a conflict, which is why they are forced to live separate and apart, a bit like the criminals they send to prison. It can get pretty lonely in a judge’s “cell.”
“Judges are supposed to be neutral and detached magistrates who subordinate their opinions to the law. It can be very isolating,” Perry says. “I know a lot of people in Orlando from living here all my life, but the number of friends I socialize with is very small. You want to be part of the community, but you have to make sure people know that you can’t talk about certain things, and not to talk about certain things around you.”
Colleague Stan Strickland knows all too well what can happen when a judge frees himself from his self-imposed prison. Last April Strickland stepped down as the original presiding judge in the Anthony trial after the defense alleged that his conversations and lunch with an Orlando blogger covering the case showed a bias against the defense.
“You try to live your life normally, but you can’t,” Strickland says about being a judge. “The less you say and do outside of court, the better off you are.”
By many accounts, Strickland was an accommodating judge. He regularly granted requests for more time from the defense team and gave it a lot of leeway to file a seemingly endless stream of minor motions, both common stall tactics. He was known to tolerate bickering among opposing lawyers.
Strickland’s decision to recuse himself from the trial set off speculation among courthouse wags that the defense made a serious miscalculation in getting another judge, particularly a taskmaster like Perry, to take over the case. But what really accentuates the differences between Strickland and Perry are their track records on the very essence of this case: the death penalty.
Strickland has never sentenced anyone to die. The two capital murder trials he has directly overseen ended in plea deals for life sentences. Perry, however, has heard eight capital murder cases, all ending with him ordering the accused to Death Row.
There is the possibility that the Anthony defense traded a merciful judge for a hanging judge.
“When I did my recusal letter and talked about
‘irony,’ it was meant in many respects,” Strickland says, declining to elaborate.
The irony may very well have been that the defense pushed out a judge who, as a devout Catholic, may be morally opposed to the death sentence.
When asked specifically whether he is capable of sentencing another human being to death, Strickland pleads the fifth. “I just don’t think I’m ready to answer that. There are judges that are more inclined to give it than others. Let’s leave it at that.”
While declining to discuss the Anthony case, Perry defends Strickland’s oversight of it, pointing out that when the grand jury handed down its indictment, Caylee’s remains had not yet been found. “The case was literally unfolding when he got it. It was a moving target. It is very hard to set deadlines and stick to them when the investigation is still in progress,” he says.
Since assuming control, Perry, in typical fashion, has run his courtroom with Prussian-like efficiency, setting firm timetables to hear pretrial motions and quickly ruling on them, with many decisions going against the Anthony team. He has narrowed the lines within which lead defense attorney José Baez and co-counsel Cheney Mason can maneuver, and he has not tolerated Baez’s malingering. In February, he fined Baez $583 for violating a court order to turn over discovery evidence to the prosecution. The fine, though small, should have been enough to warn Baez to straighten up, yet less than a month later he was in Perry’s doghouse for failing to meet a court-ordered deadline.
Criminal defense attorney Bill Sheaffer, who also works as a legal analyst for WFTV news, gives Perry high marks for how he has handled the proceedings.
“This is a difficult case for a judge to seize control of without becoming the focus of the case, à la Judge Ito,” Sheaffer says. “I have the highest respect for Stan Strickland, but what the Anthony case needed was a strong judge who was very confident about setting deadlines, keeping the prosecution to an acceptable level of aggression, keeping the defense on track and navigating around issues that could later result in a reversal, should she be convicted.”
Handling a media-saturated murder trial would be a full plate for any jurist, but for Perry it comes on top of a workload that seems downright punitive for someone in his position. As chief judge, Perry runs the court system in Orange and Osceola counties, with 64 judges under his supervision. The 9th Circuit handles more than 600,000 cases a year, making it one of the busiest in the state. His management position doesn’t put him in a higher pay bracket; he makes the same $142,178 as any other circuit judge in Florida. There is supposed to be some consideration, in the form of a lighter caseload, to accommodate the administrative burden, but you’d never know it to see his schedule.
Perry also chairs the state court budget commission, with its reach stretching from the tip of the Panhandle to the southernmost conch at Key West. He has been a champion and early adopter of technology in the courtroom and he chairs the Florida Innocence Commission, a review board created to identify and correct the causes of wrongful conviction and incarceration. Beyond his judicial obligations, he devotes time to 100 Black Men Orlando, a service organization he co-founded that encourages African-American students at Jones High and Memorial Middle schools to pursue higher education and provides some Jones graduates with college scholarships. Beyond that, he somehow still finds a few hours during the week to attend his grandson Marcquise’s high school basketball games.
Although his hall door stays locked to the public, for security purposes, his personal office door is always open to colleagues and staff—an endearing policy that has forced Perry to do a lot of his casework at home, nights and weekends.
“If there’s an order I really need to get out, I won’t come in here,” he says, rapping a forefinger on the edge of a table piled high with law books and case files. “Because if I’m here, somebody has a question they need answered. It’s. Hard. To. Tell. People. No.”
Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam—with the downbeat on the first letter of each word. Eight to the bar, strong and even—a habit from days, long past, when that rat-a-tat talent, honed in the Jones High marching band, won him a full ride to Tuskegee University, then an all-black college in Alabama.
These days, Perry only plays the radio—smooth jazz, Rachmaninoff and the Temptations—and also, apparently, the edge of his desk, for an audience of framed portraits, including those of his father, Belvin Sr., and former Orange-Osceola State Attorney Robert Eagan, who hired him in the 1970s when no one else would.
This has to be especially gratifying moment for Perry, the sight of prosecutors and defense attorneys pushing back their chairs and standing, straightening cuff links, smoothing skirts, and tucking in the slack from their shirts and blouses as he enters the courtroom. The practice is a sign of respect for the arbiter in the black robe, “Your Honor.”
Today, Perry has convened the principal attorneys in the Anthony case to discuss jury selection—how the court plans to relocate to an undetermined Florida county to pick a jury. By going outside of his home circuit, Perry hopes to find prospective jurors on whom the pretrial publicity has had minimal effect. But unless that area—a secret location that may not be revealed until the day before jury selection begins—lacked electricity in mid-to-late 2008, it’s hard to imagine finding 12 people in Florida who don’t have an opinion about Casey Anthony. Nevertheless, once assembled, the jurors and alternates will have to bear being sequestered for several weeks in Orlando.
Perry knows how it feels to be isolated, and not just because his profession dictates a certain level of exclusion from the public. While growing up in Orlando, he wasn’t allowed to even buy a hotdog at the downtown Woolworth. As an 8-year-old boy sitting where he shouldn’t on a city bus, the sting of prejudice was delivered with a backhand.
For some years his father, one of Orlando’s first black police officers, could neither carry a gun nor arrest white people.
“Segregation was a way of life,” says Perry, who made it all the way through law school without ever sitting in a classroom with a white student. “There were no dinner table discussions about how wrong it was, or why it was that way.”
But after he returned to Orlando in 1977 from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston, Perry realized the full extent to which racial bias would impact his life. Dreaming of a lucrative corporate law practice, he had to settle for pumping gas to support his young family because his dark skin didn’t sit well with the gray suits in Orlando’s law offices.
“Me and my wife, LaDrean, we get back home. I’ve got my resumes, and I’m looking for work,” Perry recalls while sitting in his office. “The next couple of weeks it’s one disappointment after another. I have a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in student personnel services, and I have a juris doctorate, and nobody will hire me. Finally, a lawyer with a very significant law firm, he tells me, ‘Unless you graduated from Harvard or Yale, nobody’s going to touch you here. The only place you’re going to be able to find a job is with Legal Aid as a public defender, or maybe the State Attorney’s Office.’ ”
The last thing Perry wanted to be was a prosecutor. But when an article in the Sentinel Star said the State Attorney’s Office was expanding, he picked up the phone. They said they weren’t hiring.
“I said: ‘To hell with Orlando. I’m going back to Houston.’ ”
Afraid his oldest son would leave and never come back, Belvin Sr., by that time retired, did something he almost never did. He called in a favor. He arranged for his son to meet with Eagan, the chief prosecutor.
Eagan, now 82, remembers that first meeting.
“My secretary said there was someone to see me, and in walks this young man. He’s got an Afro haircut, a goatee, and tinted shades. He said he wanted to apply for a job as a prosecutor.”
Appearances aside, Eagan eventually hired him as an assistant state attorney in the traffic division. Perry reported to work with short hair, a coat and a tie. He would go on to become one of Eagan’s toughest prosecutors, known for his exhaustive casework and convictions that stood up even under intense scrutiny.
Perry’s work ethic stems from his late father’s counsel about the burden of inequality. Belvin Sr. told him that a black man must work three times as hard as a white man to be considered just as good. From his mom, a retired schoolteacher, came his serious-minded approach to getting the job done and doing it well.
The Perrys raised four children on the principle that education begets achievement, a doctrine that paid off: Judge Perry’s oldest sister, Valeria Maxwell, has a master’s degree in music and is the principal of Jones High, which recently moved from a D to B school in the state grading system. Another sister, Beverly, is a family practice attorney in Philadelphia. His youngest sibling, Donald, is an orthopaedic surgeon in Tavares.
“My father always told me, ‘Pay now and play later, or play now and pay later,” Perry says, a philosophy he has tried to instill in his own children, Belvin III, 35, an insurance agent in South Florida, and Kim, 30, an investment adviser in Apopka.
To know of Perry’s upbringing is to fully appreciate what makes him tick in the courtroom. He insists on formality and decorum; just as his mother, Jessie, didn’t tolerate foolishness in her class or in her home, her son is not about to allow it in his courtroom.
During the session on jury selection, Mason, the defense co-counsel, runs afoul of Perry’s zero tolerance for talking out of turn. Perry quickly cuts off his attempt to interject a little levity into the discussion.
“Mr. Mason, you’ll get your chance,” the judge says sternly.
In Perry’s courtroom, you wait your turn. When your turn comes, you state your business, then sit down.
Perry cocks his head slightly to the right and scans the courtroom to see if anyone else has anything impertinent to say. The slight adjustment gives him an air of contemplation, but it is born of necessity. The judge only has one good eye.
He was 6 years old when he lost his right one. He and a friend were swordfighting with butcher knives, pretending to be Robin Hood. Perry zigged when he should have zagged, and the knife went into his right eye. Today, his eyelid rests low over a prosthesis, giving him a perpetually sleepy look.
Jessie Perry still can’t talk about the accident to this day. Indeed, friends and family, especially his mother, are extremely protective of the judge, leaving it to “Junior”—as he is known around the family barbecue—to discuss little-known or embarrassing details of his life. The worst anyone would say about Perry was that he has always been a bit of an egghead—playing chess and carrying a briefcase as early as middle school.
SO IT IS UP to the judge to discuss a moment in his life that was totally out of character. But if there is one truth in life that Perry understands as the son of Jessie and Belvin Sr. and as a judge, it’s that there is a price to pay for breaking the rules.
“What the consequences are depends largely on what you’ve done,” he says.
What he did was have an affair with a courthouse employee.
It came to light in 1998 when a deputy court administrator who had been let go by another judge filed a discrimination complaint. In the suit she claimed that her firing stemmed from an affair she’d had with Perry dating back to the 1990s.
Perry contends he could have saved face by interceding with his colleague on the woman’s behalf, but opted to “do the right thing” by admitting the affair and facing the consequences. The ensuing scandal almost ruined his career and, most likely, cost him a chance at advancement to the 5th District Court of Appeals. The case ultimately was settled for $65,000.
“It was a shock,” says Jill Gay, Perry’s assistant since his earliest days as a prosecutor. “We look at people like Judge Perry as gods. When you find out they’re human, it’s hard.”
Disgraced¸ Perry considered quitting. He took two years off from his chief judge duties to work on rebuilding his marriage and his reputation.
“There were two things I could have done,” he says. “I could have just disappeared from the face of the earth and not tried to contribute. That was not the way that I was raised. I was raised to give something back to my community and leave the place a little better than when I found it, because that’s the rent we pay for being here.”
Perry’s wife, LaDrean, stayed by his side— this year they will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary. In 2001, Perry’s colleagues re-elected him chief judge, a position he has held since.
Perry calls that chapter of his life “humiliating,” and though it will always be an asterisk on an otherwise glowing biography, he says he hopes that if people remember him years from now it will be for his contributions to the community, not that one mistake.
AS A PROSECUTOR, In 1984, Perry sought and won a conviction and a death sentence for Judy Buenoano, who had fatally poisoned a husband and a common-law spouse, in addition to drowning her disabled son. The trial got substantial play in the media, which dubbed Buenoano “The Black Widow,’’ and it was a watershed case for Perry, who went on to become Orlando’s first African-American to be elected judge by a white majority. He had served two terms by the time Buenoano placed the order for her final meal of broccoli, asparagus, strawberries and hot tea.
On the morning of March 30, 1998, Perry and his chief investigator drove to Florida State Prison in Starke. Perry had visited Death Row before, and he’d even seen the old oak electric chair, fashioned by inmates in 1923. But this would be the first time he’d ever seen someone executed.
“All I can remember is that we were packed like sardines in the witness room,’’ Perry says as he recalls the day, during an interview in his office. “I was seated in the front row with the official witnesses.”
As he speaks, Perry is not drumming the table. His leg is not jogging. His good eye is staring off into the middle distance.
As chief judge of the 9th Judicial Circuit, Belvin Perry Jr., seen here in his office, oversees 64 judges in Orange and Osceola counties.
“When she came through the door, her head was completely shaved, which is a shock in itself because you are used to seeing a woman with all of her hair. There were two guards on either side of her, and I noticed they were dragging her in. You could tell she was terrified. She kept her eyes closed the entire time.”
They ushered Buenoano to the chair and began to methodically strap her in. One of the straps broke, and was immediately replaced. She was the first woman ever to sit in that chair. The warden read the warrant and checked for any last-minute reprieve.
“You hear the generator rev up, and then that first shot of electricity,’’ Perry says. “At that first jolt, the body jumps and you see the steam coming out of her head and off of her ankles. There’s a second jolt, and then a doctor goes over and listens to make sure she’s deceased. And then there’s that lifeless body there. . . .
“I thought a lot on the way home about what she had done—how she had murdered her husband, murdered her own son, murdered her common-law husband, and tried to murder her fiancé, not once, but twice….You just wonder what makes people do such horrible things to other people.”
THIRTEEN YEARS later, Belvin Perry Jr. finds himself immersed in another notorious case involving a woman accused of the unthinkable. He has been working nights and weekends to avoid creating a bottleneck, but his other work is starting to pile up. The briefs on his desk are stacked taller than he is.
The case has taken over his life, as such trials are wont to do, and it’s clear that Perry is tired. It has been his practice to take two weeks off at the beginning of each year. However, he wasn’t able to do that this year. He also has been in the habit of walking on a treadmill two or three times a week, but was surprised to check in at his health club recently and discover it had been four months since his last visit.
He will maintain an exhaustive pace once the trial begins, with court proceedings scheduled to start promptly at 8:45 a.m., six days a week. If there’s a conviction, he is expected to go right into the sentencing phase, with the fate of Casey Anthony ultimately his to decide.
Perry will take precautions to deal with what he calls “hidden stress,” the build-up of exhaustion and pressure that comes with being the decider on everything from motions to suppress to opposing attorneys’ objections to how long to take for a bathroom break. To minimize that stress, Perry, an avid reader, will forgo his daily newspaper habit and avoid viewing coverage of the trial. He will hold himself to a strict schedule that will force him to leave work at the office and give him a little time each day to charge his batteries.
When asked about his goals for the Anthony case, Perry says only that they’re the same as for any trial: Ensure the defendant gets a fair trial, watch the budget and avoid making any glaring errors. He is quick to add that one life has already been lost, and another is on
As for the rest of his thoughts on the case, they are his alone.