Miami-Dade State Atty. Candidates Take Part in LGBT Forum

Katherine Fernandez Rundle (left) and Melba Pearson (right) are both running for the next Miami-Dade State Attorney position.

With Miami-Dade residents set to choose their new state attorney in August, SAVE hosted a two-night virtual town hall with the two candidates running for the position.

The first evening went to contender Melba Pearson, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor and deputy director of the ACLU of Florida, and the next to incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has served as Miami-Dade County state attorney for 27 years.

Both women are running as Democrats and Election Day is Aug. 18, Florida’s primary election day. 

The basics

Katherine Fernandez Rundle

Fernandez Rundle graduated from the University of Miami, where she also earned a Master’s in criminology, then earned her law degree from the University of Cambridge Law School. She was elected as Florida’s first Cuban-American state attorney in 1993 and has served in the position ever since. That year she was also elected the president of the Cuban American Bar Association as its first female president. Prior to her tenure as state attorney, she served as assistant state attorney for 15 years, then chief assistant and legal counsel to the Dade County Grand Jury. miamisao.com

Melba Pearson

Born in New York to immigrant parents, she attended New York University and Hofstra School of Law. She has lived in Miami-Dade County for 22 years, working as an assistant state attorney for more than 15 years and then three years as the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. She is the immediate past president of the National Black Prosecutors Association and the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association in South Florida. She serves as the co-chair of the Prosecution Function Committee of the American Bar Association. melbaformiami.com

Police violence

In light of protests around the country, the audience had many questions for both candidates about police brutality.

Pearson wants to have a team of prosecutors dedicated to handling these cases to ensure that they have their full attention and can be resolved quicker. If necessary, the same prosecutors would take the case to trial. 

“At present, sometimes these cases linger for five years, which is completely unacceptable,” she said. “I want to see these cases resolved within six months, with limited exceptions.” 

She also wants better training for officers and stated that she’s had conversations with neighboring counties who are interested in swapping police shooting cases to ensure an unbiased and transparent process. Pearson is also in favor of civilian review boards but says that their subpoena power being stripped away is a huge deficit.

Pearson noted that Fernandez Rundle has never charged a police officer for an on-duty killing. During her town hall, the attorney general listed a number of cases where police officers have been arrested, including North Miami Police Officer Jonathan Aledda, who shot at a caretaker who was on the ground with his autistic client. She noted that “We’re not always successful. Juries do not always convict in these kinds of cases.”

Fernandez Rundle also noted being a big proponent of body cams, saying that they have helped tremendously with providing evidence instead of relying on he said, she said.

Hate crimes

Both candidates are in favor of repealing HIV criminalization laws. “It discourages folks from getting tests, which keeps them more marginalized and more at risk,” Fernandez Rundle said.

When asked about there being 17 hate crimes against LGBT people reported in 2018, Pearson said, “I don’t think that’s an accurate number.” She noted that people could be afraid to come forward for a number of reasons and she wants to educate people on the process and have hate crimes prosecutors out in the community to educate them on what their options are.
Both candidates are in favor of adding gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination statute.
Pearson wants there to be training within law enforcement departments to be better equipped to handle crimes against transgender people, especially understanding their pronouns, gender and names. She suggested updating affidavit forms to have officers write the name on the person’s driver’s license as well as the name they actually use. Fernandez Rundle noted that the Hate Crimes Unit has 10 lawyers who have been working on 19 cases from last year, mostly anti-Semitic cases.

When asked about bullying in schools against LGBT students that leads to bodily harm, suicide or death, Fernandez Rundle said the responsibility “falls on all of us.”

“We all have to recognize that it exists, we have to acknowledge it, we have to embrace it, and we have to fight it and say it’s intolerable at all levels. It breaks my heart to see that.”

Other

  • Both congratulated the LGBT community on the latest SCOTUS ruling protecting LGBT workers, but added that there is still much work to be done.
  • Fernandez Rundle was asked about her work in human trafficking, and she pointed to the NFL reaching out to her department to collaborate on a project during the Super Bowl. They’ve asked to participate again when the Super Bowl comes to Tampa next year. She said her Sex Trafficking unit has prosecuted more than 600 cases involving 700 victims in a short period of time. “This is not about sex, it’s about selling our children for money,” she said.
  • Pearson wants to end the use of the cash bail system, stating that it creates two systems of justice: one for the wealthy and those who don’t have the resources.
  • Fernandez Rundle touted her department’s “Miami-style smart justice” when it comes to pre-arrest and post-arrest diversion programs. With the Second Chance Program that allows nonviolent offenders to complete a program, have their charges dropped, and their record sealed and expunged. This includes juvenile offenders. Pearson is in favor of “making sure kids are treated as kids” when it comes to juvenile justice. Except in cases of murder or using a firearm, she believes their cases can be handled in juvenile court.
  • Pearson wants to increase transparency and is interested in replicating a study by the ACLU of Florida that tracked the rates of arrest, length of sentence, and types of charges in the county by race.

To register to vote, get a vote-by-mail ballot, or to get more information about upcoming elections, visit registertovoteflorida.gov.

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