EVER SINCE HE WON a surprise acquittal for accused child murderer Casey Anthony in 2011, criminal defense attorney Jose Baez has had a flamboyant reputation for convincing jurors to let his often-unsavory clients walk free.
But when he took on the complex federal securities fraud case against Platinum Partners co-founder Mark Nordlicht — who ran what was once a $1.7 billion hedge fund firm — Baez nonetheless seemed an odd choice. His eponymous law firm is based in Orlando, Florida, not Manhattan; his other notable clients have included celebrities like Aaron Hernandez, whom he managed to get acquitted of a double homicide while the former NFL star was serving time for another murder
In the Platinum case, Baez’s client was accused of something far less sensational, but serious nonetheless: defrauding investors in his hedge fund as well as bondholders in a company Platinum controlled.
Baez believes, however, that all juries are alike. Whether in a murder trial or a white-collar case, they’re “just fine folks like you and me,” he says. And as the nine-week Platinum trial wound to a grueling finish last June, the New York native had a brainstorm he thought would help jurors in a Brooklyn courtroom feel his client’s pain: a clip from the Hollywood classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
“As I was learning about the case, this phrase ‘bank run’ kept coming up. And then I remembered in It’s a Wonderful Life there was a bank run scene,” he told Institutional Investor in a recent interview. “So I went on YouTube and I played it, and I’m like, ‘This is this case.’”
Baez has gained a grudging respect from others in the defense bar for his many high-profile wins and his uncanny ability to connect with jurors in a way some corporate lawyers also involved in the Platinum case acknowledge they could not. (“Let’s rock and roll,” one juror was heard saying as Baez began a day of cross-examination.)
“This is going to break things up a little bit for you,” Baez told jurors in the middle of his closing argument before proceeding to show the film’s famous Depression-era scene, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a beloved small-town banker fending off a run on the bank by explaining to depositors that their money isn’t in a vault — it has been lent out to others in the community.
“That’s illiquidity,” says Baez — the same fate, he argues, that befell Platinum.
In his telling, Nordlicht was George Bailey, the movie’s protagonist, and Mrs. Nordlicht was Bailey’s wife — both putting in their own money to save the bank. In the film, there is even a surly investor demanding all of his money back. That person, Baez said, was like Amir Shaked, a fund-of-funds manager and whistleblower who was one of four investors who testified that Platinum insiders had lied to them about the fund’s financial situation and refused to return their money as they believed the terms of their investment required.
“This bank run could bring the whole fund down,” Baez explained as he finished playing the clip. In that one visual, the attorney conjured the problems facing Platinum in the most benign way possible. Says Baez: “It was literally the same exact thing that was unfolding in this case.”
Read my full story in Institutional Investor for how the judge chose hedge fund managers over hedge fund investors for the biggest upset in white collar criminal trials in years.