Early in her storied legal career, Sally Weintraub represented three poor black students from Perrine arrested during racial unrest at their high school. The year was 1970.
A judge, then known as a justice of the peace, stood up and angrily ordered her out of his courtroom.
“It hit the national news,” Weintraub said. “I was representing blacks, and he was a good ol’ boy and you just didn’t do that.”
Unless you were Sally Weintraub. She appealed. And prevailed. More than four decades later, Weintraub would again find herself fighting for the voiceless, a murdered foster child named Rilya Wilson. The 4-year-old vanished while under state supervision, and her body has never been found.
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After a grueling trial, a Miami-Dade judge last year sentenced Rilya’s Kendall caretaker, Geralyn Graham, to 55 years in prison.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a longtime advocate for reforming the state’s child welfare system, credits Weintraub’s tenacity for closing a difficult and emotional case.
“She was determined that she was not going to leave until she found justice for Rilya,” Wilson said. “Rilya had no relatives. She was a little foster child no one cared about. But Sally cared about her.”
Those cases bookend the long and accomplished career of a prosecutor who — at age 85 — has finally decided to retire after more than five decades practicing law in Florida.
At the end of June, she will end her 35-year run as a Miami-Dade assistant state attorney, a job largely devoted to convicting murders, robbers and child abusers.
“Trial work is really tough, physically and mentally,” said Weintraub, who is spending her last months helping investigate a backlog of police shootings.
“I can’t work at that level anymore,’’ she said. “It’s not fair to the case. It’s not fair to the detectives.”
For now, Weintraub has no post-retirement plans other than to relax and play a little tennis.
Born and raised in Chicago, Weintraub earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin law school in 1953. Several years later, she moved to Miami after her husband, also a lawyer, was offered a job in Miami.
She joined the Florida Bar in 1962. At the time, Weintraub was one of the few female lawyers practicing in South Florida, and she left a private firm after being snubbed for a promotion.
Weintraub joined Legal Services of Greater Miami, where she represented indigent clients from South Miami-Dade in civil and criminal cases. After a few years, she started her own firm, but soon tired of handling divorce cases.
Then-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno persuaded Weintraub to join the office in 1979. But already in her 50s, Weintraub initially found a cool reception from fellow prosecutors.
“I was grandma to them. They were just a bunch of just-out-of-school kids,” Weintraub said. “Nobody knew me. I didn’t go to law school here. I wasn’t born here. I had no contacts here.”
But gracious secretaries soon taught her to handle the grind of criminal court. Her approach was steady and workman-like, never seeking the limelight, always waiting for the cases to be assigned to her. Even today, the names of the defendants often blend together, many of the cases lost in the annals of Miami crime.
“I remember fact patterns,” Weintraub said.
As her experience grew, division chief Jay Novick brought her on board to try higher profile and more complex cases. One of their early successes: Weintraub and Novick in 1987 convicted Dee Dyn Casteel, a Naranja waitress who paid two car mechanics to murder her lover, and later, his elderly mother. Casteel was the first Miami-Dade woman sentenced to Death Row.
Weintraub also helped convict Manuel Pardo, the ex-Sweetwater cop who killed nine people in the 1980s. He was executed in December 2012.
Over the years, Weintraub returned the mentoring, showing younger assistant attorneys how to meticulously comb through depositions, select juries and deliver powerful closing arguments.
In the 1990s, to try murder and robbery cases, she brought in Sandra Miller-Batiste — whose family Weintraub knew from her days practicing law in Perrine.
“She commands the jury’s attention and they totally believe her,” said Miller-Batiste, who now works in the public corruption unit. “She exudes wisdom.”
Those aspiring prosecutors included one of her three children, Joshua Weintraub, who joined the office in 1990. He soon began trying cases with his mother, with the state attorney’s blessing.
Said Joshua Weintraub: “Looking back, I never realized criminal prosecutions were so stressful because she was always so calm, collected and in complete control as she stood up there questioning witnesses or cross-examining defendants.”
Weintraub never shied away from tough cases.
Time and again, she and her son tried Alphonso Gainer, who beat five murder trials — four of them for the 1996 robbery-murder of school teacher Lisa Scuddy at a Coconut Grove Miami Subs. The case hinged on the testimony of a drug-addled neighborhood woman — after three mistrials, a final jury acquitted Gainer in 2003.
It remains the toughest loss of her career.
“I always knew there were other people in the neighborhood who should have come forward and didn’t,” Weintraub said. “There was a bunch of people sitting across the street, but Gainer was a force in the neighborhood and people in the neighborhood don’t snitch.”
In one polarizing case in 1991, Weintraub prosecuted a Hialeah father who was driving his 3-year-old daughter as she sat on his wife’s lap. The car crashed into a van, and the toddler was hurled through a window, dying of massive head trauma.
With Reno’s support, Weintraub filed a vehicular manslaughter charge against the father, Ramiro Rodriguez, on the theory that he was reckless in failing to yield, and failing to strap the child into a child seat as required by law. The first-of-its-kind case drew national headlines.
But at trial, Circuit Judge Sidney Shapiro threw out the case, saying prosecutors failed to prove the charge.
“I have a lot of a respect for Sally,” said Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Reemberto Diaz, now a Miami-Dade judge. “I know she took criticism for the litigation. But I know she does what she believes is right and I respected that.”
Diaz called Weintraub “one of the best of the best” of prosecutors in South Florida.
The two also went head to head in the trial of Guillermo Arbelaez, a jilted man who threw his ex-lover’s 5-year-old son off a bridge into Biscayne Bay in 1989. He is now on Death Row.
But it was her most recent child slaying case — also the last lead murder prosecution of her career — that had the most far-reaching impact.
Foster child Rilya Wilson vanished in December 2000, but her disappearance went unnoticed for 15 months. Graham, one of her caretakers, claimed to investigators that a DCF case worker whisked the child away for some sort of mental health treatment.
Prosecutors believe Graham, after months of torturing the chubby-cheeked child, smothered her with a pillow, then discarded the corpse in a body of water in South Miami-Dade.
Ultimately, jurors convicted Graham of kidnapping and aggravated child abuse — but deadlocked on the murder count. Eleven jurors wanted to convict. One held out.
At 68, Graham is likely to die in prison. Prosecutors chose not to retry the murder case.
The investigation exposed glaring deficiencies at the Florida Department of Children and Families, and led to wholesale reforms in the early 2000s.
“The evidence was damning for DCF,” she said
“I was outraged at everything I learned about the case,” Weintraub said. “The more I learned, the angrier I got. Everybody failed that child.”