Friendly Fire

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle should have coasted to election victory. Instead she's dodging bullets from the police unions in the political fight of her life.

He maintains that his command of soldiers, his courtroom experience, and his passionate commitment to fighting crime qualify him to run the state's busiest prosecutor's office. As if to mitigate his macho image, Milian is careful to note his love of books. He drops the names of Camus, Borges, and Whitman, and reminisces about exploring his father's vast library while growing up.

Milian speaks eloquently about his motivations. “I arrived here from Cuba at a very young age,” he says. “I came from a society that was turned upside down because of the revolution. The rule of law went out the door; habeas corpus was suspended in 1959 and has never been respected again. In Miami I grew up in a lot of political turmoil. I remember the day Martin Luther King was killed. I remember the riots. I remember the political violence here in the 1970s. And the lesson I learned was that the rule of law is essential to a civilized society. American society, for all its shortcomings, has always worked toward a goal of having the rule of law overcome the rule of men. And that's where a great deal of my passion comes from in law enforcement.”

Despite his noble intentions, Milian's passion has gotten him in trouble before. The Miami Herald dredged up a 1985 fistfight he had with another student while attending law school; that altercation resulted in his conviction on a misdemeanor count of battery. Defense attorneys in Broward have complained that as a prosecutor he frequently provoked them. “Every once in a while he would invite me out to the garage to fight with him,” Maury Halperin told the Broward-Palm Beach New Times last year. Halperin added that that he respects Milian and since then has contributed money to Milian's campaign.

Rundle confers with Miami police officers during a training session
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Rundle confers with Miami police officers during a training session

At least three other times Milian's courtroom behavior has cost him a trial. In 1992 his clashes with a defense lawyer were noted during an appeal of a criminal case. “The attorneys engaged in several shouting matches before the judge,” the Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote in its decision to throw out the conviction and hold a new trial. “During that time Mr. Milian called the defense attorneys “maggots' and “poor excuses for humans beings.'”

In 1993 Milian told a judge that the jury on a case he had just prosecuted was “made up of buffoons” and “lobotomized zombies” after they found a defendant guilty of misdemeanor crimes instead of felonies. The verdict stood but a panel of the district court's judges condemned the hotheaded behavior: “Even if this had been one isolated instance of an emotional outburst, Mr. Milian's conduct would be deplorable. Unfortunately this instance is not isolated.”

In 1997 the court of appeals overturned another murder conviction because, during closing arguments, Milian told jurors that anything less than a conviction would establish a “one-free-murder rule” in the community. “It is improper for a prosecutor to infer to the jurors that a conviction will serve some larger social good beyond the confines of the trial,” the judges wrote.

While Milian was never reprimanded by his bosses for his behavior, the cumulative effect of such behavior has scared off many potential supporters. Miami criminal defense attorney Sam Rabin, a former assistant state attorney, is no fan of Rundle. Nonetheless he says he'll have to grudgingly vote for her this election. “I've known Kathy for a long time,” Rabin says. “We are in significant disagreement on a number of issues related to how she handles her office. But given what I know about her opponent, I believe she is the best of the available choices.”

As the campaign season began this past summer, Rundle had more to worry about than Rivera and Milian. Sherry Rossbach, an ex-secretary in the State Attorney's major crimes unit, was suing Rundle. Rossbach was fired in 1998 ostensibly for becoming personally involved with a hit-man witness for the prosecution, but she claimed she was terminated for complaining that a senior prosecutor sexually harassed her. In July her case went to court, where a jury believed her and awarded her $230,000. The trial judge later overruled the sexual-harassment verdict, saying there was not enough evidence. But he did let stand the jury's finding that Rossbach's firing was an act of retaliation. The timing was inauspicious: Milian had just announced his candidacy.

Not long after that, things picked up for Miami-Dade's top law-enforcement officer. The district office of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the county's second-largest police union, endorsed her. A large FOP advertisement in the July 17 Herald touted the State Attorney as “a friend to law enforcement.”

But the union's district office apparently hadn't consulted with its individual police departments. Within weeks the Miami and Miami Shores lodges, as individual FOP branches are called, broke with headquarters and announced they were backing Milian. (The Miami Police Department lodge, with 1500 members, was the size of all other county FOP lodges combined.) Capt. Tony Rodriguez, president of the Miami lodge, says Rundle became quite upset when he called to let her know his group was breaking with the district endorsement. “Yeah, I was disappointed with that,” Rundle confirms. “On the other hand, I recognize that John [Rivera] and Tony are close.”

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