Wag of the Finger
Know this about Cheney Mason: He loves a good fight, whether it’s with the government, ‘incompetent talking head lawyers’ or a heckler whose provocations led him to flip the bird.
You can’t just take the elevator up to the 21st floor of the Bank of America building and walk into J. Cheney Mason’s law office. Access to that floor is restricted, a precaution taken during the Casey Anthony trial that has remained in place because of the haters who’ve continued to torment Mason, the defense team’s co-counsel. Who knows how long the security measure and the harassment will last? Amid the Old West décor in Mason’s office is a photo of him and his wife, Shirley, sitting in a white 1958 Corvette convertible. It was taken in 1991 at Mason’s 30-year high school reunion. He recalls the moment fondly, saying his Winter Park High classmates all wanted to be photographed with the classic Vette. It had to be quite a proud moment for him considering he had dropped out of school. “I was homeless,” he says, explaining why he enlisted in the Air Force on his 17th birthday. The happy image in the frame is all the more remarkable when Mason offers some vague details about his teen years: His father wasn’t around, his mother committed suicide and he lived with families of friends for a while. But the backstory of the reunion photo also provides a snapshot into Mason’s character: He was prepared to fight lonely, uphill battles, few being more brutal and unpopular than his successful defense of Anthony. In this Q&A interview, Mason bears little resemblance to the sore winner the world saw on the afternoon of July 5 when he scolded the media and “talking head” lawyers for trying the case in the court of public opinion. Here, Mason reveals there are people who want to help Anthony, why the defense waited three years to claim Caylee drowned and, without even being asked, why he flipped the bird.
Orlando magazine: What has your life been like since the trial ended?
Cheney Mason: There has been a barrage of speeches and appearances on television shows and so forth. There’s been a lot of work trying to get caught up on my clients who have been on hold.
OM: Haven’t you incurred the wrath
of some people? You’ve gotten threatening phone calls. . .
CM: There have been threatening letters and calls. But the truth of the matter is that favorable and congratulatory letters and calls are way more than 10 to 1 over the threatening ones. I would say at this point we’ve received somewhere in the vicinity of 250 offers from people with places for Casey to live, not all of whom are nuts, not all of whom are adventurous young men. . . . There’s been lesser numbers of job offers for Casey, offers of money for Casey, voluntary checks from people—checks for $10, $25, $50. I guess overwhelming support is coming from people who are appreciative of our efforts in protecting her rights, defending the Constitution of the United States.
OM: Do you fear for your safety?
CM: The answer is no. By nature I am not the type of person who fears too much. I’m way past that. If somebody out there wants their 15 minutes of fame, there’s not much I can do about that. I’m going to go on with my life. I’m usually armed . . .
OM: So you have a concealed-weapons permit?
CM: No, I don’t have one. But I carry when I need to, legally. I’m armed right here. There’s a 9-millimeter with two 14-shot clips right there [pointing to a desk drawer].
OM: Is the Casey Anthony trial the pinnacle of your career?
CM: I don’t think so. Every person I’ve represented who has been acquitted has been the pinnacle of my career. I’ve tried over 400 jury trials in state and federal courts around the country. Certainly this case is the most visible, the most publicized case because of the media now. I’ve had plenty high-profile cases, and probably a dozen were televised, but this case comes at time when there is all this blogging stuff, and Twitterers or Tweeters, and whatever else there is, and Internet stuff, so that has caused a lot more notoriety. There is even some idiot out there who has created a counterfeit Facebook page of me [actually, there were several, including one with his profile photo showing him flipping the bird], and I’m told there is one of the judge [Belvin Perry], too, and of Jose [Baez, lead defense attorney]. And I can tell you that’s going to be a project of mine. We have demanded that Facebook bring them down, and they haven’t responded. If by the end of next week [Aug. 5] they’re still up, I intend to bring a very significant lawsuit against them. I have lawyers at big firms around the country willing to do it. If I sue them, I will get their attention. It won’t be for some small number like $100 million. It’ll be for a whole lot more. No one has a right to falsely create an image of somebody else to hold them up to ridicule. Facebook and similar endeavors need to have some consequences and some responsibilities.
OM: You may find social media a curse, but you found it helpful during the trial, didn’t you?
CM: No, that’s false.
OM: You didn’t peruse social media during the trial to . . .
CM: Never once in the trial. I read the story of somebody claiming that, but that’s a complete fabrication. It’s not true.
OM: I saw a lawyer on one of the talk shows, maybe it was Dr. Drew, she was blond, saying she helped the defense team use social media to check on prevailing attitudes about the trial.
CM: She’s a complete liar. The blond woman you’re talking about saying she was a consultant who helped us—I never met her. I never saw her in my life until she was on TV. Now that we’ve won, there are a whole lot of people trying to claim credit for contributions [they didn’t make]. I’m probably the only lawyer in the country who has never sent a text, nor have I ever received one.
OM: What do you think the Anthony trial will do for Jose Baez’s career?
CM: Jose is a very young lawyer, with very limited experience. It’s got to be good for him. He showed himself not to be necessarily the most knowledgeable on the evidence code and about doing things right in the courtroom, but he is certainly a hard worker, and he certainly learned about forensic evidence. He knows more about some areas of forensic evidence than 90 percent of the lawyers in this country. I talked with him yesterday, and he certainly hadn’t seen any elevation in his business. But it doesn’t come the next day.
OM: Why wait three years for Casey to go to trial before announcing, as Jose Baez did in his opening statement, that Caylee drowned in the family pool?
CM: That was Mr. Baez’s decision, and he is the lead counsel. I think it was a good decision, frankly, because it didn’t make any difference what we said. The news media convicted this girl and sentenced her, mostly to death, way before the trial. A jury came along and reversed that decision. The tunnel vision of prosecution and the tunnel vision of law enforcement were not going to change. . . . [The prosecution] knew from my deposition of [chief medical examiner] Dr. Garavaglia a year and a half ago. I told her specifically about the drowning. I wouldn’t tell them what our theory was. There was nothing ever going to be done to cause the state to drop this case.
OM: Do you know when Baez was told by Casey that Caylee had drowned?
CM: No, I don’t. I have been on the case only a year and a half. He had been on it a year and a half before that. I was told from Day 1. Actually, before I was a member of the team. That’s why I said on the courthouse steps we’re going to get her out of here; she’s going to be acquitted. Nobody believed me, except those close at hand.
OM: It was still a claim that wasn’t proven in court.
CM: Well, it was proven enough. The jury found reasonable doubt and acquitted her. We could have proven it entirely had they not destroyed evidence, meaning having the remains cremated against Casey’s desires. Had they not been cremated, we could have proven she drowned because of forensic evidence they destroyed. It’s called diatoms. [Forensic pathologist] Dr. Werner Spitz [a witness for the defense] could have testified to it, but he didn’t have any opportunity to get that evidence when he did a second autopsy and didn’t include it in his initial report, so under Judge Perry’s rule he couldn’t testify to it. Diatoms are basically microscopic glasslike cells that are in water. The presence of diatoms could have been proven had the remains not been cremated. Would that absolutely prove [Caylee] drowned? No. Would that be overwhelmingly consistent with forensic science? Yes.
Editor’s note: Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia takes issue with Mason. The point about Caylee being cremated before a diatom test was done is moot, she says, because such a test would require the presence of organs or bone marrow, which is where the diatoms would be found. When Caylee was discovered neither of these was present—her remains were dried bones. Moreover, Garavaglia says, the presence of diatoms doesn’t always point to drowning—these one-celled algae also can enter the body simply by a person swallowing water while swimming.
OM: Did you feel Judge Perry was fair to both sides?
CM: I think Judge Perry in his mind thought he was. I don’t think he was fair to the defense. There were judges all over this country and this state I heard from that would have dismissed this case. They would have granted a judgment of acquittal on my first argument because the evidence wasn’t there. Prosecutor Jeffrey Ashton finally got called on his antics, but way late.
OM: Are you talking about when Ashton was smirking and laughing during Baez’s closing arguments?
CM: He was doing that the entire trial. And it’s on the videotape of the entire trial. There were at least three or five times I told the judge, ‘You’ve got to make him stop doing this.’ But the judge didn’t see it. The jury saw it. They were offended by his actions. If the rest of them come out, they’ll tell you that.
OM: Is there a plan for how Casey will return to public life? Is there a timeline?
CM: There’s no timeline. It’s going to take a long time. Where can she go?
OM: Where is she now?
CM: She’s hiding. She is safe. She is protected. We’re getting counseling for her. What else can she do? And what is all the fervor with the media trying to find her? It kind of reminds me of the dog that chases the car: What the hell is he going to do with a car if he catches it? What’s somebody going to do if they find Casey? Is he going to kill her? There are nuts out there who want to, and they better hope there is a defense lawyer out there to save their ass. What else do they want? Is she going to talk? That’s stupid, isn’t it?
OM: Are there millions to be made in the aftermath of this case?
CM: I keep hearing that. I know of no offer that’s been made to Casey, or of any offer that could be made to Casey. Mr. Baez has had calls, and I have had calls. We haven’t seen anything. Talk is very cheap.
OM: How much does she owe her defense team?
CM: She doesn’t owe us anything. Get the record straight. The value of the lawyer time on an hourly rate is over $2 million. We were paid nothing. At the beginning, there was a $200,000 payment. Mr. Baez got about $60,000, the rest went to other members
of the team and expenses at that time. My hourly accounting alone was somewhere in excess of $600,000.
OM: Why would you work free?
CM: Because I can. It was the right thing to do. I knew Casey did not kill her daughter. I knew the public outcry was unjustified. The media lynching was a vigilante effort, and she didn’t deserve it.
OM: Let me ask you about your post-verdict scolding of the media and “incompetent talking-head lawyers.’’ Was that an extemporaneous statement or had you planned to say that?
CM: It was extemporaneous at that point in time, but my position on [lawyers as TV legal analysts] has not changed for a long time. I’m not going to name the lawyers because they don’t deserve to have that additional exposure. Isn’t it facetious to have a lawyer commenting on lawyers about a murder case and he himself has never tried a murder case? It’s pretty offensive.
OM: But you played a TV analyst, too, and at one point…
CM: Yes, I did, but I had the experience behind it, 38 years of trying homicide cases. I always researched every issue, or I refused to comment because I didn’t have time to do the research. I don’t tolerate this paparazzi style of questioning, shoving microphones in my face. . . . It’s that type of mentality that resulted in me flipping off that jackass downstairs, which I knew you were going to ask. That’s usually one of the first questions.
OM: This is the guy who harassed you daily when you were crossing the street [from the courthouse to the Bank of America building], some kind of radio personality.
CM: He was a stalker who harassed us day after day, almost every morning, to and from lunch and in the evening, yelling and screaming. Just crazy stuff. We had security just to keep him at bay. One day he yells out at women on my team: ‘What’s the matter with you bitches, are you on your period?’ My wife made me promise every morning before I left for court not to hit him. So, when we won, and the [police] got us over here to the [restaurant Terrace 390 in the BofA building], this guy was going insane out there. He was yelling and screaming, creating a scene because there were television cameras filming him. And then he started pounding on the glass trying to get in, and I said that’s it, and he got the famous salute. He went berserk.
OM: Let me back up to something you said earlier: You said you knew Casey was innocent, or at least the circumstances of how Caylee had died…
CM: Let’s say what I said. I said what I knew is Casey did not kill her daughter. I knew and I know Casey Anthony did not kill
OM: But at one time you went on WKMG and said Casey was going away for life. And you were very critical of the Baez defense strategy.
CM: I’ve heard that, but I don’t remember it, and I don’t think it’s true.
OM: It was on Dec. 11 . I’ve seen the video. You were on WKMG, Channel 6.
CM: That was the day Caylee’s remains were found. I remember that. [Mason goes on to explain that he was told by a sheriff’s official that Caylee’s skull was ‘all wrapped’ in duct tape, leading him to make a conclusion based on inaccurate information.] I told them if that’s the case, then there will be a lot of forensic evidence, and they will be able to prove, probably, the cause of death. If that’s the case, then there probably would be a
OM: You enjoy a good fight, don’t you?
CM: Yeah, I always have.
OM: Do you look at yourself as David taking on Goliath, the government and prosecutors being Goliath?
CM: When I was a child going to Sunday school that was my favorite story. I know that the government at all levels is corrupt, and I don’t trust it. I have seen the abuses of government so frequently in so many situations. I don’t trust them, and I don’t believe them, and I am going to take them on.