How Janet Reno handled and bounced back from the biggest cases in her life

Janet Reno and current Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle share a light moment at the start of the ceremony commemorating 50 years of the state attorney's office.
Janet Reno and current Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle share a light moment at the start of the ceremony commemorating 50 years of the state attorney's office. Miami Herald File

NOTE: From the Miami Herald archives, this article was written when Janet Reno ran for governor in 2002. Reno died at age 78, her family announced on Monday.

Janet Reno’s brilliant career crashed at precisely 2:37 p.m. on May 17, 1980. She had just lost her biggest case against four Miami-Dade County cops charged in the beating death of a black insurance agent. As she simmered inside the Metro Justice Building over the all-white jury’s verdicts, thousands of blacks chanted “Reno must go!” outside the gray courthouse. Then they set the lobby on fire. Many blamed the state attorney for the acquittals in the Arthur McDuffie trial and even for their rioting in Miami’s ghettos. They said only her resignation would stop the street killings.

Reno, branded by some as a racist, said quitting would be like “giving in to mob rule.” Instead, in the weeks and months after the three-day riot, she ventured into the war zone, smoldering Liberty City. She never apologized for the McDuffie trial, but she shared their deep disappointment. In hindsight, her boldness saved her political life, a biographical turning point that she never mentions in her quest to oust Jeb Bush as Florida’s governor on Nov. 5. Yet it was classic Reno — standing on principle — the one constant virtue that enabled her to transcend a turbulent tenure as Miami-Dade’s top prosecutor and later as U.S. attorney general.

READ MORE: Janet Reno dies at 78

“What impressed people was that she went into the black community at night without a police escort and was able to convince people that she did the best she could with the case,” said Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, once one of Reno’s most vocal black critics. “The woman was absolutely fearless,” said Dunn, co-author of The Miami Riot of 1980. “We were not used to white politicians doing that.” Reno, a 64-year-old Democrat who now enjoys widespread support among black voters, never saw herself that way during the McDuffie saga. In fact, she still sees the case, which was actually prosecuted by her office’s best trial lawyers in Tampa, as her greatest regret as state attorney. She said she repeatedly met with her black critics because that was her responsibility — face their anger, don’t run from it. But she said she had no idea whether her forays into that hostile terrority salvaged her career.

SEE PHOTOS: Janet Reno, first female attorney general

“Nobody ever ran against me [in 1980],” said Reno, who was elected five times during her 15-year tenure as state attorney, an era that coincided with Miami-Dade’s deadliest crime. “My mother said it was because nobody wanted the job. I think she was serious.”

Gerstein Eyes Reno

In 1972, Miami-Dade’s powerful state attorney, Richard Gerstein, set out to hire Reno, a Harvard Law School graduate recognized as a comer among Miami-Dade’s new breed of good-government liberals. Her father, Henry Reno, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning police reporter for the Miami Herald, and her mother, Jane, a respected writer for the Miami News.

Gerstein had followed her career — impressed not only with her pedigree, but also with her ambitious work as a senior legislative aide. She was the principal author of new laws that created Florida’s court system.

Reno, who had just lost her only bid for a state house seat that November, could help reorganize Gerstein’s office and polish his image.

He was a tough, towering prosecutor who had lost an eye as an Air Force navigator during World War II. But he was also seen as a Pal Joey-like character who frequented night clubs and horse tracks. He was investigated for alleged ties to organized crime, but no charges were filed.

“Gerstein thought if he hired Janet Reno it would show the Herald and the legal establishment that he wanted quality people on his staff,” said Seymour Gelber, Gerstein’s former chief assistant, who went on to become a state circuit judge.

Reno, who thought prosecutors were more interested in seeking convictions than justice, resisted his offer. Her father always thought Gerstein was a crook, she once said.

When she finally came on board, Gelber gave her the job of overhauling the state attorney’s office to deal with all the changes in Florida’s courts, including the juvenile division.

“I figured it would take her six months, minimum,” Gelber said. “Sixty days later she walks into my office with a sheaf of paper and says, ‘Here it is.’ I can’t say that it was perfect, but I was flabbergasted that she did it so quickly.”

Reno replaced Gelber as Gerstein’s chief assistant; she never tried any criminal cases.

In 1976, however, her mentor, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, lured her to Steel, Hector & Davis, the prestigious Miami firm that had once rejected her for a summer job during law school because she was a woman.

Her fate soon would change when Gerstein decided to end his 21-year reign in December 1977. Reno’s name was instantly on the short list to replace him. Gov. Reubin Askew, who would pick Gerstein’s successor, admired Reno and her work for the House Judiciary Committee.

D’Alemberte, who had chaired that panel, put in a good word for her with the governor.

“I told him she wasn’t a prosecutor, but that what he wanted in a state attorney was a person with unquestioned integrity who knew how to make the tough decisions,” recalled D’Alemberte, now president of Florida State University. “That was Janet.”

Gerstein, playing it safe, recommended both Reno and Ed Carhart, his chief assistant and one of his best prosecutors. Reno sent a letter in support of Carhart to Askew, but then changed her mind as she became the obvious front-runner.

When Askew offered the job, Reno answered: “Governor, I’m honored.”

In retrospect, Carhart said he felt Reno could have been more forthcoming about her ambition. “I had a little beef with her for state attorney, because she wasn’t up front about her intentions,” said Carhart, who resigned to become a criminal defense attorney.

Her swearing-in ceremony was held in January 1978 at the Miami-Dade Community College’s downtown campus. Askew said he carefully compared Reno to all the other male candidates, before choosing her as Florida’s first female state attoreny. “In the end, Janet stacked up better,” said the straitlaced Askew, unaware of his choice of words.

“Everybody roared with laughter,” said Reno’s younger sister, Maggy Hurchalla.

After the ceremony, Askew met with Reno’s family. Her mother, Jane, known for speaking her mind, said, “Governor, don’t you know what stacked means?”

“He turned red,” Hurchalla recalled.

Changing of Guard

Reno, then 39, took over a state attorney’s office with about 95 prosecutors, who handled 15,000 felonies and 40,000 misdemeanors a year.

Like Gerstein, Reno literally stood tall over her staff. But the similarities ended there.

She quickly developed the reputation of a workaholic, leaving her parents’ Kendall home in her Ford Mustang to take daily Spanish lessons at the Metro Justice Building by 7:30 a.m. Her days were marathons — meetings with senior assistants, prosecutors and anyone off the street who wanted 10 minutes of her time. Then there were the civic commitments at night. Her home number was listed in the phone book, and she often toiled on weekends.

“I hate to say it, but she didn’t have a life,” said Abe Laeser, a longtime senior prosecutor, who has worked with Gerstein, Reno and her protege and successor, Katherine Fernández Rundle.

Reno also had the reputation of a micromanager who could be intimidating but loyal to her staff.

She kept notes on the progress of important felony cases with her supervisors and prosecutors in her “black book,” also known as the “book of death.” She expected them to have answers.

“She was more like a strict mom,” said Laeser. “You knew what your expectations were, and if you messed up, you knew you were going to be spanked — verbally.”

Laeser and other prosecutors said that Reno was a pragmatic problem solver, not an ideologue. She weighed the facts of a case and applied the law. Behind the scenes, she often called the prosecutorial shots on major cases — homicides, drug smuggling, public corruption. She was seen as particularly aggressive in her prosecution of child abusers, drawing national attention. Controversy over the 1985 conviction of Frank Fuster in the Country Walk babysitting case lingers to this day.

Reno’s Crucible

As her profile grew, Reno became known as a prosecutor unswayed by public opinion, even if it meant offending key constituencies.

Before the McDuffie case, the black community had accused the state attorney’s office of a string of prejudicial prosecutions. Among the more unpopular: the conviction of Miami-Dade’s first black public school superintendent, Johnny Jones, accused of using a school board account to order $8,934 in gold-plated plumbing fixtures for his Naples vacation home.

The conviction was later overturned because an appellate court found that the trial judge should have questioned the prosecution’s exclusion of blacks from the all-white jury.

The McDuffie case became Reno’s crucible.

McDuffie — a divorced, 33-year-old father and Marine veteran — was riding his motorcycle on North Miami Avenue after 1 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1979, when he roared through a red light past a police cruiser. That set off an eight-minute chase that ended with several Miami-Dade cops splitting his head open. They tried to make his beating look like an accident.

“They beat my son like a dog,” the victim’s mother, Eula McDuffie, told the Herald at the time. “They beat him just because he was riding a motorcyle and because he was black.”

Reno’s office charged five cops with manslaughter or tampering with evidence, but Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lenore Nesbitt dismissed the charges against one defendant for lack of evidence. Calling the case a “time bomb,” the judge moved the trial to Tampa.

Laeser, who helped prepare the case with Reno, said there were disagreements over whether to try the accused together or separately, and whether to grant a few officers immunity in exchange for their testimony against the four defendants. He said immunizing Charles Veverka, one of the officers directly involved in the beating, sent the “wrong message” to the all-white jury in Tampa. The jurors came back with unanimous not-guilty verdicts.

“Their problem was, [the prosecutors] were going for a home run instead of a single,” said Carhart, who defended Miami-Dade Sgt. Herbert Evans Jr., accused of leading the coverup. “They prosecuted the case not based on the evidence, but based on politics.”

It became an instant disaster for Reno. The subsequent racial riots, lootings and killings of eight whites and 10 blacks — televised on national television — were like a noose around her neck.

“They were going to lynch her in the black community,” Carhart said.

Reno did not shy away, expressing her disappointment in repeated visits with black groups. She never second-guessed her handling of the case, however.

Dunn, the FIU professor and early Reno critic, invited her as a guest on his WMBM radio talk show. “What do you think the problem is?” he asked her. “Well, Marvin, it’s people like you,” she punched back.

Minister Freeman Wyche, pastor at Liberty City Church of Christ, said the community’s distrust of Reno lingered until 1984. That fall, she faced her first real challenge from a respected Cuban-American lawyer, Jose Garcia-Pedrosa.

Wyche recalled asking Reno at a church meeting to declare that she would be fair. She felt hurt and teared up, he said.

“Of course, I will be fair and do the right thing,” she said.

“I needed her to say this for the sake of the people in the community,” Wyche told the Herald.

While Reno was converting enemies, the Miami Herald’s editorial board abandoned her for Garcia-Pedrosa in the race for state attorney.

The paper’s editorial described Reno as a “lightning rod for much of this community’s free-lance hatred and frustration.” After the McDuffie setback, Reno’s office prosecuted — and lost — a manslaughter case against Miami police office Luis Alvarez in the 1982 shooting death of Nevell Johnson, Jr. in an Overtown video games arcade.

The board said she could not be held responsible for these and other crimes — but singled out her mismanagement of her office. “It is by that standard, alas, that her performance as state attorney must be found wanting.”

While the board lauded her for doubling her staff of prosecutors, it criticized her strained relations with law enforcement agencies and the disorganization of her office. It cited a below-average conviction rate, a tendency to forfeit important cases because of administrative lapses, and a chronic inability to meet the 180-day speedy-trial deadline.

The editorial endorsed Garcia-Pedrosa, a former Miami city attorney.

Reno clobbered him at the polls, winning an overwhelming majority of white non-Hispanic and black votes — plus 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

The Cuban exile voting bloc, though substantial, was not yet big enough to make a difference for Garcia-Pedrosa.

“He was way ahead of his time,” said political consultant Armando Gutierrez, adding that Reno had cultivated close ties to the exile community. “She was friendly with the few Cuban commissioners and mayors at that time.”

Of course, Reno’s link to Miami’s exiles was forever broken in April 2000 when, as U.S. attorney, she ordered the return of Elián González to his father in Cuba.

Thankless Job

As Reno’s mother might have said, being Miami-Dade’s state attorney was a thankless job.

Time magazine — in a 1980s cover story detailing the Mariel boatlift crime wave and the Cocaine Cowboy shootouts — dubbed South Florida “Paradise Lost.”

“It was a modern-day wild west,” said Tom Cash, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in South Florida from 1988 to 1995. “It was a Murderer’s Row of drug traffickers and bank robbers. Everyday, it was like, ‘Can you top this?’ ”

Reno became a target for criticism in part because she was so easy to hit.

A Herald series showed that in 1992 — her last year as state attorney — Miami-Dade had the highest crime rate in the nation, but sent convicted felons to state prison at a lower rate than any other large metropolitan area in the country.

Looked at another way, Reno’s office was cutting too many plea deals with career criminals to ease the overwhelming burden of cases on the court system. That, in turn, kept felons on the street instead of prison, the series showed.

Reno declined to comment because she had not seen the paper’s crime and sentencing data. But she still took umbrage with its findings.

“In our plea negotiations, we tried to focus on the serious offenders and tried to get the sentencing time that was appropriate,” said Reno, whose office won death sentences 103 times, despite her personal opposition to capital punishment.

Reno acknowledged, however, that unavailable witnesses and missing evidence plagued investigations, leading to no action or dropped charges. “That was a situation of continuing concern to us,” she said.

According to the state attorney’s records in 1991, her office’s conviction rate was 60 percent, compared to 70 percent statewide.

Reno said during her 1993 confirmation hearing as attorney general that her conviction rate was lower because many nonviolent, first-time offenders were placed in Miami-Dade’s drug court for treatment and supervision. Her drug-court model, though viewed by some as flawed liberalism, has been copied around the country.

Her senior assistants defended her record — and philosophy. “She cared more that the results of each case were just,” said Rundle, her successor as state attorney.

“Janet never worried about statistics in the end,” said John Hogan, Reno’s former chief assistant. “What mattered to her was doing the right thing.”

Many police officers didn’t view her record with such respect.

“It was my view that she had one of the worst records in the state and in the country,” said Kenneth Harms, former Miami police chief from 1978 to 1975.

“We were constantly having to deal with these habitual criminals who revolved through the system,” said John Rivera, president of the 6,500- member Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association.

But that wasn’t the only reason relations between Reno and the police were strained. She aggressively pursued cops who crossed the thin blue line.

On Jan. 16, 1989, with Miami hosting the Super Bowl, police officer William Lozano shot a speeding black motorcyclist, Clement Lloyd, who lost control and crashed on an Overtown street. He and his passenger died.

Unrest erupted for three days, reflecting the painful antagonisms between inner-city blacks and the many Hispanic officers who policed their neighborhoods.

Hogan led the manslaughter prosecution against Lozano, represented by famed defense attorney, Roy Black. A racially mixed jury found Lozano guilty, concluding he was not acting in self defense as Lloyd came speeding toward him. But an appeals court granted him a new trial because of the disturbances after the shooting. In 1993, Lozano was acquitted.

Another rap on Reno was her handling of public corruption cases.

She prosecuted and won about a half-dozen cases against elected officials, but took no action in many others. Among those cleared: Former Miami Commissioner Miller Dawkins, ex-Miami City Manager Howard Gary and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.

Martinez was later indicted by the Feds on extortion charges, and convicted at trial. But the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Reno’s rationale for having the U.S. Attorney’s Office take the lead in major corruption cases was based on pre-trial rules more than any other factor, she said. In state court, defense attorneys could repeatedly take depositions from victims and witnesses before trial; they couldn’t do that in federal court.

A case in point: the Miami River Cops. More than a dozen police officers were charged with ripping off millions of dollars in cocaine and cash from dealers. But the state attorney’s case was threatened by pre-trial rules, so it was refiled in federal court. The joint state-federal prosecution succeeded.

“She and I didn’t want important indictments and important investigations to be hindered by procedural rules,” said Leon Kellner, former Miami U.S. attorney from 1985 to 1988. “It wasn’t simply ‘I can’t handle it, so you take it.’ ”

But some criminal defense lawyers — once Reno critics who now back her — don’t entirely agree.

“Anything heavy went to the Feds because her office was not up to it,” said Jeffrey Weiner, who is a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Said Miami attorney Richard Sharpstein: “The federal government, with its spider web of enforcement abilities, has always been far more equipped to do public corruption cases.”

Reno’s Legacy

Perhaps no one has a better sense of Reno’s legacy as state attorney than Georgia Ayers.

The longtime social worker came to her defense when the black community wanted Reno’s head after the 1980 McDuffie verdict. Over the next two decades, Ayers worked with Reno on an array of stubborn problems — drug use, juvenile offenders, domestic violence, welfare fraud and deadbeat dads.

Indeed, a rap song written by Luther Campbell salutes Reno’s aggressive efforts to collect child support from negligent fathers. (“She chased you down to 15th Avenue, you tried to hide your trail. She found your a-- and locked you up and now who can’t post no bail?”)

Ayers recalls single mothers of Overtown and Liberty City running up to greet Reno when she campaigned there and walked in the Martin Luther King Day parades.

Ayers said the community views Reno as a social engineer who believes in getting at the root of crime and in giving youthful offenders a chance to redeem themselves. “Janet will give you enough room to either hang yourself or get out from under it,” Ayers said. “She’s not mean, she just means business.”

After Reno moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as attorney general, Ayers gave her a call to tell her she wanted to name a Lemon City alternative school after her for youths expelled from Miami-Dade public schools.

“I told her I was going to call it the ‘Janet Reno Last Chance Alternative School,’ ” Ayers said.

“And she said, ‘No, you don’t want to call it that. This a new chance, not a last chance.’ ”