Criminal Defense Attorney J. Cheney Mason talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about some of his high-profile cases, why he’s opposed to TV cameras in the courtroom and his forthcoming book, which he hopes will change people’s minds about the case against Casey Anthony.
The media circus generated by the Casey Anthony murder trial in Orlando nearly three years ago catapulted J. Cheney Mason to international fame. Public outrage over the not guilty verdict made him, his co-counsel, Jose Baez, and the jurors themselves the target of unbridled hatred—Mason’s wife called 911 after receiving threatening phone calls to their home at all hours following Anthony’s acquittal—and yet to this day Mason has no regrets about taking the case and vehemently defends Anthony’s innocence. “I never believed for a minute she was guilty of killing her child and yet the State of Florida was trying to kill her,” he says. “Many people have asked me why I and my reputation would get involved in that case but I agreed to take it because I thought it would be challenging and I told myself I am going to walk her out of there—and I did. I never believed there was evidence even to justify an indictment. It was barely circumstantial, but any prosecutor can indict anybody at any time and no judge or grand jury can tell them they cannot. There was no evidence to convict her and that is why the jury got it right. Obviously, the media had convicted both Casey and me.”
Opportunist: Were you surprised by the verdict?
J. Cheney Mason: I would be a liar if I didn’t say I was surprised. I believed it should have been ‘not guilty’ and I made that public announcement when I told the media in my one interview on the courthouse steps.
Opportunist: Did you ever find it exhausting to be in the midst of what Time magazine called ‘the social media trial of the century’ for six weeks straight?
J. Cheney Mason: The enemy had me surrounded, so I knew exactly where they were and couldn’t miss them. [Laughs] All you can do is ignore it.
The most egregious aspect to me is that the public is so uneducated and ignorant about cases like that and believes the first lie they hear, especially the screaming and incompetence of certain media personalities and their ilk who think they know what’s going on. I was focused on saving Casey’s life and never felt she deserved to be charged. Being able to say ‘I told you so’ to some of the news media who said we didn’t have a chance right up until the verdict was read made it all worthwhile.
Opportunist: Do you believe criminal trials should be televised?
J. Cheney Mason: I have tried more than a dozen fully televised homicide cases and probably have more experience doing so than just about anybody, and I was opposed to cameras in the courtroom from the beginning and I oppose it now. It creates an artificial environment in the way everybody involved responds or reacts to it—no matter what they say.
In every case I have tried or observed with cameras in the courtroom the judges themselves are affected by it. They change their hairstyle, redo their makeup, get publicists, posture for the cameras and kowtow to the media’s presence. They are afraid to hold an ordinary conference without involving the media. Jurors too, even though in most cases their identity is protected and cameras are not allowed to show their faces—and I say this without exception—primp and style up and wear their Sunday best every single day as if they are on show. That is wrong. Witnesses are keenly aware they are on TV as they enter the courtroom, take the stand to testify and as they leave. They primp and posture and try to alter their testimony and style of conversation. And the lawyers, oh my goodness, they are as bad if not worse! I have seen it over and over again.
The main response in defense of TV cameras in the courtroom is that they are educating the public. I have a response to that and it’s called b.s! Cameras are disruptive and they don’t help the public at all.
Opportunist: Were you opposed to the continuous media coverage outside the courtroom?
J. Cheney Mason: I have a philosophy that is different from many others. When young Mr. Baez asked me to join him, he was drawn to the fire and wanted to hold constant press conferences. But we don’t have control of the switch, the mute button, the camera. We cannot do a thing about it. We don’t get to do the editing or control what ends up on the cutting room floor as they used to say. The producers do and they can take raw footage and do whatever they want with it—take things out of context, change words and so forth. So, I told him, ‘Jose, you’ve got to stop doing this. It’s not going to help us or the jury. I don’t want it done.’ Eventually, I was able to get him to stop.
The worst offense is the talking-head lawyers who are anxious to get on TV and pontificate about things of which they know nothing. Reporters need to fill up their time and so they say, ‘come on boy, sit down here’ and end up talking to someone who lacks the expertise to back it up.
Opportunist: What was it like to walk outside the courthouse on the day of the verdict and step into a throng of angry people?
J. Cheney Mason: The mob outside was screaming and howling. The only thing they didn’t have was pitchforks and torches. To me, those were Americans with no concept of constitutional rights or justice. It was depressing to see that happen, but it happens every day. Pick up any newspaper and you will read something tilted against someone. The news media is always on site to film the perp walk and question those who otherwise would not be questioned. I have repeatedly seen sheriff’s departments or police departments allow reporters to interrogate people and it’s an abhorrent outrage. When the press tries to physically impose on you, shove you or hit you on the head with a mic apparently that gets pretty good coverage. One day earlier in the trial, I called a cadre of press and said, ‘You need to listen to what I’m saying. I am over 65 years of age and that makes me a senior citizen. If you assault a senior citizen it’s a felony, so I suggest you get away from me.’
Opportunist: What about that infamous photo of you?
J. Cheney Mason: Oh, the picture of me giving the middle finger? Want to hear the true story about that?
Opportunist: Of course.
J. Cheney Mason: On the first day of jury selection in Clearwater there was this obnoxious street urchin who I am told was a stringer reporter for a radio show. I don’t his name or who he was affiliated with, but he started stalking us and yelling at us. When he showed up at the trial in Orlando, I enlisted the help of a figurehead bodyguard and the judge to keep him away but he was still allowed to be out on the streets. So, despite the astounding efforts of the local sheriff’s office to keep people cordoned off, he would shout obscenities at us day after day from the middle of the street between Orange Avenue and Livingston. About four weeks into the trial, I was walking across the street with my colleagues Liz Fryer and Dorothy Clay Sims and some female interns and paralegals when this guy starts up. We had agreed to ignore him, but the more we did the louder his insults became. When he screamed ‘What’s the matter with you bitches, are you on your periods?’ I dropped my briefcase and went for him. Despite my age and professionalism, my years spent in the Far East came out and I was going to hurt him. Fortunately, our bodyguard and the girls stopped me. I told the cops and the sheriffs, who admonished him once again.
Each morning as I left the house the last words I would hear would be from my wife of almost 41 years saying, ‘Promise me you won’t hit him.’ Sure enough, that SOB would be out there every day when I arrived at the courthouse.
After the verdict came in a SWAT team escorted us over to my building. We had closed the restaurant downstairs so nobody could come in except our team and whomever else I cleared and yet, within minutes, there was this guy beating on the windows! So I ‘saluted’ him and somebody took the picture and computer enhanced it. To this day, I am amazed at the number of people who still want me to autograph a copy of that photo. Apparently, the sentiment was a fairly popular one.
Opportunist: Has interest in the case—and you—waned over the last few years?
J. Cheney Mason: The public tends to equate the lawyer with the crime. In the beginning people called and wrote and threatened to kill me and my family and even my grandchildren, and we still received occasional threats up until the last few months.
Every time I go out to a store or restaurant or anywhere else in any state I am recognized—sometimes with scowls and frowns and sometimes with nods and salutes.
Opportunist: What are some of your other high-profile cases?
J. Cheney Mason: I defended a young man accused of conspiracy and murder of the father of his neighborhood female friend—friend as opposed to girlfriend in the normal vernacular. That case had a huge audience and media following because the girl’s father was the president of the Warlocks Motorcycle Club. She felt he had over-restricted her social life and my client allegedly staged an ambush and killed her dad in his own kitchen. After a trial of about two weeks, my client pled to a lesser offense of aggravated assault and another man was convicted of the murder.
Another time I defended a guy who had killed a preacher who showed up at his mobile home on a five-acre plot of woodland in Seminole County. The victim was going door-to-door trying to recruit people to his religious cause. He ignored all the ‘keep out’ and ‘no trespass’ signs my client had posted and drove onto the property after dark and knocked on the front door. My client saw the car coming and knew nobody was allowed in, so he grabbed his .44-magnum pistol and went to the door. This guy must have thought that because he was doing God’s work he was entitled to ignore the admonitions of the property owner. My client instinctively pressed on the gun and it went off and hit him in the belly. The case received a lot of negative media attention and my client was convicted of manslaughter.
In the 1970s I defended Harlan Blackburn, a co-boss of the Dixie Mafia, for his alleged assassination attempt of another man in the organization named Clyde Lee. Harlan and his family ran a numbers business similar to the lottery and Clyde would pick up lottery tickets and paid debts for him. Another man, Sam Cagnina, shot Clyde in a phone booth on Highway 434 in Longwood, Fla. He was hit nine times with a 9-milimeter bullet and I’ll be damned if he didn’t live! Harlan was indicted as a conspirator.
Opportunist: Is there a particular case in which you felt more emotionally involved than others?
J. Cheney Mason: State of Florida vs. Aaron Campbell. Aaron was a black Miami-Dade police officer who was profiled and stopped on the Florida Turnpike by an Orange County deputy sheriff. He was driving a new Ford SUV northbound when it was probably decided he fit the profile of a drug courier or dealer. That is the case in which I told the jury the statement that went worldwide—although I am not saying I coined the phrase—that ‘The only thing my client was guilty of was driving while black.’
Aaron Campbell was acquitted and he was one of the most deserving and innocent and decent humans I have ever known or represented. He was a first-class gentleman and his problems came solely because he was black and that grossly offended me.
Opportunist: How do you decide whom to represent?
J. Cheney Mason: There is no specific formula, but it certainly is not necessarily money. I wasn’t paid a dime to represent Casey Anthony. In fact, it cost me over a million dollars in unbilled time and cash out of pocket. Economics are an important factor in some cases but I believe in defending anybody who I believe is justified. I probably refer out or turn down 60 percent of the people who want to hire me. On more than one occasion I have gone to a jail to interview somebody and walked out after telling them, ‘I’m not going to represent you and I don’t have to.’ One time I turned down a man who offered me $1 million to represent a co-conspirator in a federal case because he wanted to make all the decisions about what I did or did not do in defending the individual. I said, ‘Sir, I would love to take your $1 million but that is not going to happen. What you need to do is leave. Stand up and walk out of my office.’ [Laughs]
Generally, if a person seems justified and worthwhile and the issues are there and my time and my calendar and availability go along with it, I will give it some consideration.
Opportunist: Did you ever consider becoming involved in the George Zimmerman trial?
J. Cheney Mason: Only to the extent that my wife threatened me with all sorts of insurrections if I agreed to do so. [Laughs] Taking all the heat for Casey Anthony was enough.
Opportunist: You have been named one of Orlando’s ‘legal legends’ and ‘an attorney you can trust.’ What is it about you and the way in which you practice law that has earned you this distinction?
J.Cheney Mason: For 43 years, with every other lawyer I have ever dealt with, I have been vigorous in ensuring that I tell people the truth or I tell them nothing at all. That includes clients, judges and the press. I made up my mind to be an old school lawyer and stay above the fray, generally speaking. I don’t tell clients what they want to hear to separate them from their money. I never try to trick jurors. As people used to say back in the Old West, ‘My word is my bond.’ If I say I am going to do something, I do my very best to do it. If I say I will not do something, I won’t.
Opportunist: Prosecutor Jeff Ashton and your co-counsel, Jose Baez, each wrote a book about the Casey Anthony trial. Is there a book in your future?
J. Cheney Mason: Yes. I am finishing a book called Justice in America that will be released in July to coincide with the third anniversary of the Casey Anthony verdict. I pulled no punches in that book. It is approximately 400 pages and is the real truth about the case against Casey as well as some others. I have pointed out prosecutorial abuses and biases and prejudices of judges and the news media and talking heads. I have also included specific documents, so it’s not a question of me just stating an opinion. I put it right in the book. People will be able to read what the court said, read what the letters said, read what the motions actually contained and why. It’s not about the books that have preceded me, which were not documented and not totally truthful. My book is endeavored to be absolutely factually correct on every page and I will stand behind it.
After my book is published, I am going to start collaborating pretty quickly with a former medical examiner friend of mine on a series of novels based on actual cases we have handled. We have enough material to take us through the rest of our lives [Laughs] and if we are able to do that I will effectively retire from climbing in the ring as I have been doing for 43 years. It would be nice to sit here and look at the park and write books. I am 70 now, so I better get started. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Where is Casey Anthony today, and what do you wish for her?
J. Cheney Mason: She is still mandatorily in hiding. She cannot go anywhere. It really is a Greek tragedy.
I hope that somehow, some way the public will be dragged kicking and screaming into a sense of truth and justice and give her the benefit of the doubt and find her not guilty as the jury did. In my book I explain why it was so clear the jury was right and why justice ultimately prevailed against all odds. I am hoping that if my book is widely distributed more and more people will say ‘I never should have listened to that talking head with the wrong evaluations.’ I believe anyone who objectively reads the book will come away with a real clear conscience that the jury reached the right verdict and that she was not guilty of killing her child.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @lescstone.
J. Cheney Mason, P.A. - http://www.jcheneymason.com