ORLANDO, Fla. – Fed up with the constant bickering and legal posturing, the judge in the Casey Anthony murder trial scolded prosecutors and defense attorneys Monday, warning them they may face punishment when the trial concludes. Then, the judge abruptly canceled proceedings for the day to give both sides time to work out their differences.
From the start, Judge Belvin Perry has had to be more than a legal referee. He forced both sides to shake hands a couple of months before the trial even started, and lately he has grown frustrated that the jury has to wait in another room while the two sides haggle over witnesses.
"There has been gamesmanship on both sides," Perry said. "... Obviously there is a friction between attorneys. That's something I guess the Florida bar will deal with. And at the conclusion of this trial, the court will deal with violations that may have occurred."
Anthony, 25, is accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter during the summer of 2008. She has pleaded not guilty. The defense says the girl drowned in her grandparents' swimming pool while the state says she was suffocated by duct tape being placed over her nose and mouth. If convicted, Anthony could get the death penalty.
In response to the attorneys' infighting on Day 23 of the trial, Perry told them to expect to work a full day this Saturday, instead of just a half. He also said they must be in their seats at 8:30 each morning, ready to go, rather than getting to courtroom any time before 9 a.m.
Leslie Garfield, a law professor at Pace Law School in New York, said the constant back-and-forth happens more frequently than people realize.
"And that's usually because judges have a high tolerance for understanding. The lawyers have a duty to their client, but also a duty to bar to be ethical. ... There's nothing that makes a judge more aggravated than when lawyers play games," Garfield said.
While Perry's wrath Monday was directed at all attorneys on the case, he is most upset with the noticeable discord between lead defense attorney Jose Baez and prosecutor Jeff Ashton, who has 30 years of experience.
Ashton, the No. 2 on the prosecution's team, has often accused Baez of questionable legal practices. Baez has been practicing since 2006.
Before the trial, the two constantly butted heads in open court, requiring Perry to step in several times.
Ashton submitted a motion in February asking Perry to find Baez in contempt of court for missing a court-ordered deadline. Baez then accused Ashton of "being unprofessional."
After Baez apologized "for any verbal attacks" on the prosecutors, Ashton dropped the motion and Perry had the pair shake hands.
Last week, the judge intervened again when they tried to talk over one another during an objection by Ashton. Perry had to sternly ask Ashton to "calm down" and "take a seat for a second" as the jury looked on in surprise. It was the first true spat jurors had actually seen between the two.
On Monday, the judge highlighted the deep disdain between attorneys when he asked Ashton and Baez to look at the clock in the courtroom and tell him what time it was. Ashton said "9:25" and Baez "9:26."
"That shows the two of you won't agree on anything or ever interpret things the same way," Perry said.
The defense was about to call forensic anthropologist William Rodriguez to the witness stand Monday when the prosecution asked the judge for more time to go over a deposition he gave this past weekend.
Rodriguez was supposed to testify Saturday, but he was interrupted after prosecutors said he started talking about information that was not previously disclosed to the state. Perry wound up granting the state time to depose him and admonished Baez for violating a January court order that made it mandatory for expert witnesses to submit preliminary reports on their testimony.
Ashton said Monday the next expert Baez planned to call submitted only a summary report without any clear opinions. Ashton also said he planned to officially file for sanctions against Baez.
University of Miami law professor Tamara Rice Lave said Perry's challenge is keeping order and not showing too much disapproval.
"Jurors are watching everything," Lave said. "Even if they are sequestered, they are certainly will notice how the judge is treating different lawyers. It's certainly not helpful if the judge doesn't like one of the lawyers at all. In some ways it's a bit of a Wild West show and the judge is trying to rein it in."
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