These are both fragile and explosive times. They call for leaders who are battle-tested, compassionate and possessing the will to find the best path forward for all in our community.
We think Katherine Fernández Rundle is such a leader. We recommend voters retain her as Miami-Dade state attorney as she faces her strongest challenge yet from an appealing and formidable opponent, Melba Pearson, who is running on a progressive reform agenda.
This is not a full-throated, unequivocal endorsement of the incumbent. Her 27-year tenure has been at times flawed, at times infuriating, at times befuddling. She can, and must, do better.
Pearson is correct: We need criminal-justice reform, in the courts, in the prisons and, especially, in police departments. We believe Fernández Rundle when she says change must happen, and we know she has the experience and influence to bring it about. After almost three decades in office, she has a unique opportunity to use her power to respond to the community’s cries for change and drive that much-needed overhaul.
“There is an appetite now for reform,” Fernández Rundle told the Board. No kidding. We expect Fernández Rundle to ride that wave and to be in the forefront of that crusade.
Pearson is a smart, accomplished and capable attorney. Still, we think the task would be too great in having to lead the biggest state attorney’s office in Florida, with so many tentacles of responsibility. Still, we would never say never to Pearson, who worked as a prosecutor for Fernández Rundle for 16 years before leaving to become deputy director of ACLU of Florida. She says she is not a disgruntled former employee running against an old boss.
Pearson promises to end the cash bail system that, by its nature discriminates against the poor, significantly reduce the jail population, divert youth out of adult court by stopping the office’s practice of direct filing.
We are well aware that Fernández Rundle has become a lightning rod for many African-American residents, including the local Black Lives Matter movement who decry the fact that, despite her 27 years in office, Fernández Rundle has not charged a police officer in a fatal, on-duty shooting. We are not comfortable with that figure, either. However, here’s what gets lost in the criticism: No other prosecutor in the state of Florida has done so either. Prosecutors blame Florida’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights for blocking their efforts to take action against bad cops. It gives officers wide latitude — too much — for their on-duty actions. In other words, a prosecutor’s case against an officer would have to be 100 percent airtight to get a conviction, especially when juries — unfortunately — are overwhelmingly forgiving of officers, even the rogues.
We support accountability, but think this is an unfair oversimplification of the totality of Fernández Rundle’s career and contributions. There is one area in which Pearson, whose vision for the role she would play as state attorney is otherwise spot-on, appears naive. She seems willing to take even less-than-winnable cases against police officers to trial. Though winning is never guaranteed, we’re not sure what that approach accomplishes.
Fernández Rundle’s long history with local police has, through the decades, been both cooperative and contentious. The last time she had a serious challenger, in 2012, the Police Benevolent Association dropped its endorsement of Fernández Rundle. Their complaint? She was “too hard on cops.”
Throughout her 27 years as Miami-Dade’s top prosecutor, Fernández Rundle has also led the way to make the state attorney’s office more humane in how it dispenses justice, offering alternatives to incarceration.
Do you think there would be a nationally replicated Drug Court without her support?
Do you think teens who run afoul of the law could be diverted to Boot Camp instead of serving prison time without her backing?
Do you think there would be a Hate Crimes Unit in her office without her push?
Do you think the victims of human trafficking would be treated with compassion if Fernández Rundle had not made it a pet project?
Mentally ill suspects who end up in the criminal-justice system, too, are treated with more understanding and get more appropriate care because she’s on board.
Local officers wear body cameras because she lobbied for them in Tallahassee, where she also has helped protect her budget — and even that of the Miami-Dade public defender — from crippling cuts by clueless state lawmakers.
She has also thrown her support behind the restart of an independent civilian review panel in Miami-Dade to oversee local police. It’s an effort that needs her muscle.
One thing is true, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes changed the dynamic of the race for state attorney, which is a good thing. The incumbent must be called to account, too. Calls for voting Fernández Rundle out of office have gotten louder. This weekend, Black Lives Matter activists demonstrated outside her office and calling for her to drop out of the race. On social media, Miami filmmaker Billy Corben recently released a brief video attacking Fernández Rundle for declining to pursue criminal charges against jail guards in the death of Darren Rainey, mentally ill man scalded in a Miami-Dade jail.
Secret charity fund
And when it rains it pours. A recent story by our news partners at WLRN revealed in a year-long investigation that since 2009, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has given more than $5 million it collected from defendants to nonprofits in the county. The money came from defendants seeking to reduce charges against them, or even make their cases completely disappear. The idea of using crime money to help the underprivileged is admirable, but Fernández Rundle needs to immediately make the program more transparent and its mission crystal clear. This can’t be something that just a few well-heeled defendants know about. She needs to correct the shortcomings of the Denise Moon Fund immediately.
Fernández Rundle notes that she has prosecuted some 500 police officers on misconduct and corruption charges.
Like other Florida prosecutors, she says her office is hamstrung by the Officers Bill of Rights. And that it is her responsibility to not bring forth unwinnable cases for show.
“The law gives a lot of latitude to police officers,” she said.
Pearson argues that Fernández Rundle should have prosecuted the cases, if only to send a message.
“The legal standard is not ‘I’m going to win this case,’ ” Pearson told the Board.
Fernández Rundle stood by the decisions she’s made, including Rainey’s horrifying case from June 2012.
Fernández Rundle said her office could not file criminal charges in the case because the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner ruled that he did not suffer any burns in the shower and his death was not a homicide.
“The evidence was against us. It was against our ethical standards to go forward,” she told the Board.
The non-prosecution of Hialeah police Officer Jesus Menocal Jr. for allegedly sexually assaulting or harassing women while on duty is another case plaguing Fernández Rundle. In a closeout memo related to the allegations that Menocal sought sexual favors, read that “regrettably” there were no witnesses or DNA evidence to make a case. It’s regrettable, too, that Menocal was kept on by Hialeah police.
Fernández Rundle’s campaign maintains that she has the support of many in the Black community, but we think that support is generational. She has the support of the 5,000 Role Models Project, an initiative founded by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson that she has long supported, but not of the Black Lives Matter activists who in June gathered outside the Metro Justice Building denouncing her record in combating police brutality.
As we stated, the incumbent has flaws. However, we are basing our recommendation on what we believe is best for the community. Fernández Rundle has the heft and breadth to actually carry out the reforms being called for, wielding her experience as a powerful tool.
The Miami Herald recommends KATHERINE FERNÁNDEZ RUNDLE for Miami-Dade County state attorney.