During the Casey Anthony murder trial, senior writer Michelle Tauber has been providing exclusive behind-the-scenes impressions and insights from PEOPLE’s up-close courtroom seat
“Judge Perry is my homeboy.”
So say the T-shirts that went on sale near the Orange County Regional courthouse in Orlando, Fla., shortly after Belvin Perry Jr. began presiding over the Casey Anthony murder trial on May 24.
Shrewd, sharp and utterly no-nonsense, Perry, 61, has emerged as a star during the widely watched trial, despite – or perhaps because of – his seeming disinterest in the cameras that capture the ongoing drama in courtroom 23.
In person, Perry – who presides as chief judge of Florida’s massive Ninth Judicial Circuit – initially evokes The Office‘s world-weary Stanley: hangdog expressions, a “let’s just get on with it” air. You wonder if he would rather be doing a crossword puzzle in a comfy chair at home.
But as soon as court is called to order, there can be no mistaking that this judge is acutely in control.
Long regarded as a “judge’s judge” by his peers, “what you see is what you get with him,” says longtime Orlando criminal defense attorney Bill Umansky, who has tried cases before Perry. “He’s not acting any differently in this trial than in any other trial. He is very hard-working, very educated, very smart.”
The son of one of Orlando’s first black police officers, Belvin Perry Sr., Judge Perry grew up in segregated Orlando in the 1950s and 1960s. In April he told the Orlando Sentinel that for a long time he and his friends were barred from sitting at the lunch counter at Woolworths, and when they finally could, “it was like that was a great experience to be able to walk in and get a hot dog for the many years that you couldn’t.”
A gifted intellectual, he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tuskegee University before graduating with a law degree from Texas Southern University.
After working as a prosecutor he promptly rose through the ranks of the judiciary but hit a roadblock in 1998 when he publicly acknowledged – and apologized for – an affair with a former deputy court administrator. “The first thing you learn,” he told the Orlando Sentinel, “is how human you are.”
‘Doesn’t Suffer Fools’
A veteran of capital felony cases, Judge Perry has repeatedly demonstrated that he has little patience for bickering among the lawyers in the Casey Anthony murder trial, chiding both sides for “gamesmanship” on June 20.
“He doesn’t suffer fools,” says Umansky.
When he does issue reprimands, it is with the firm but understated tone of a quietly stern father who needn’t raise his voice to be heard. So while the heat index outside the Florida courtroom soars into the 100s, inside, Judge Perry never loses his cool.
“He’s not a yeller,” says Zahra Umansky, a criminal defense attorney in private practice with her husband Bill who has also worked with Perry. “He’s very respectful to all the parties: the litigants, the attorneys. He’s not going to get caught up in theatrics.” Accordingly, “you don’t walk into his courtroom unprepared.”
A Tough Judge
Beyond his well-established expectations for lawyers, Judge Perry is also widely regarded for handing down firm sentences that stick.
“He’s fair, but he’s known to be a tough sentencer,” says attorney Bill Umansky. “He takes a lot of pride in his rulings, and he does not like to be reversed.”
Casey Anthony, who faces the death penalty for allegedly murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, surely knows of Perry’s tough reputation. She rarely looks at him directly, nor he at her.
But there’s one party in the courtroom to whom the judge often shows a softer side: the jury.
Avuncular and attentive to them, he often asks in his slow southern drawl if they’re comfortable, enjoying their meals, and so forth. In return, they grant him something rarely glimpsed in courtroom 23: a dozen friendly smiles.