Miami-Dade County, FL State's Attorney: Miami-Dade County State’s Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle has antagonized criminal justice reformers during her 27 years as the top prosecutor in Florida’s largest county, and she’s facing a challenge from the left from former local ACLU deputy director Melba Pearson in the Aug. 18 Democratic primary. No other candidates filed for the general election, so whoever earns the nomination next month will win this office.
Fernández Rundle was appointed to this post in 1993 after incumbent Janet Reno resigned to become U.S. attorney general, and as the Miami Herald notes, she has never charged an on-duty police officer for a fatal shooting during that long tenure. Fernández Rundle has defended herself by saying that state law gives cops a great deal of latitude when it comes to the use of lethal force, which makes it incredibly difficult to successfully prosecute police wrongdoing. Indeed, the paper says that until recently, no Florida prosecutor had charged an on-duty officer for a fatal shooting since 1989, a case that resulted in an acquittal.
Fernández Rundle acknowledged that there is “something wrong with the law,” but she argued she was still bound by its constraints. She declared, “A lot of people say, ‘OK, just do it anyway, just try the case anyway. Are we going to do that for everybody? Teachers, doctors, nurses?” Fernández Rundle continued, “Our obligation says we’re not permitted to do that, and it applies to police officers as well. We can’t just take our best shot.”
Additionally, Fernández Rundle’s office has attracted intense criticism for its handling of the investigation into the 2012 death of Darren Rainey, an African American inmate with schizophrenia who witnesses say was killed after prison guards forced him into a scalding-hot shower for more than 90 minutes.
Fernández Rundle’s team spent years probing the case only for her to announce in 2017 that there would be no charges because "[t]he evidence fails to show that any correctional officer acted in reckless disregard of Rainey's life." The county Democratic Party called for Fernández Rundle to resign over this decision three years ago, but the incumbent did not go anywhere.
Fernández Rundle has responded to critics by stressing her accomplishments in office, including the recent establishment of a “rocket docket” that allows judges to speedily waive outstanding fines and fees for former felons looking to get their voting rights restored.
Fernández Rundle has also supported the creation of an Independent Civilian Panel to investigate complaints against the police in Miami-Dade County; voters will decide in a November referendum whether to implement this idea. She has further talked about her work charging officers for misconduct, including her investigation into a group who were framing Black men.
Pearson, by contrast, has focused on criminal justice reform and systemic racism. Pearson, a former state prosecutor who would be the first Black person to hold this post, said of Fernández Rundle, “I don’t think she’s a racist. But I do think you can be a tool of white supremacy without intending to be.” Pearson also said of the incumbent’s reluctance to prosecute fatal police shootings, “If you’re not going to charge the cases, you’re never going to know if a jury would have convicted.”
While reformers have scored key wins in races across the country, Pearson has a very difficult task ahead of her. The Herald writes that Republicans and independents will be able to vote in the Democratic primary, which will likely benefit Fernández Rundle. The incumbent also is very well funded, while the paper describes Pearson as “strapped for cash.”