Reno owes the public answers

Published April 28, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Janet Reno's reputation as a state attorney, the foundation for her eight years as the nation's attorney general and her present candidacy for governor of Florida, was built in significant part by her aggressive prosecution of three sensational child abuse cases in Miami-Dade County. She pioneered a controversial technique for eliciting intimate details from young children and inspired passage of a law allowing them to testify by closed-circuit television, out of the possibly intimidating presence of their suspected molesters. It is open to dispute, however, whether this is a record of which she should be proud.

One of the defendants, a 14-year-old boy, was acquitted after his attorneys discredited the children's persistent interrogations by a psychologist who called herself the "yucky secrets doctor." Another was freed by a federal appeals court after 12 years in prison. Only the first, Francisco Fuster Escalona, remains behind bars, serving 165 years on 14 counts of abusing children at the Country Walk day care center in southwest Dade. His 18-year-old wife, Ileana Flores, had pleaded guilty and testified against him.

The 17-year-old Fuster case was the focus of a PBS Frontline documentary Thursday night which broke the news that Flores, who later signed a document recanting her testimony and then repudiated that, is now saying once again that he was innocent, she was innocent and that she was coerced by Reno and others into denouncing her husband. She said she was kept naked in a suicide watch cell and given cold showers and that Reno visited her late at night in pursuit of her confession and damning testimony. If true, that detail would be particularly troubling. No suspect should be interrogated by anyone under such degrading circumstances, and in the absence of her attorney, no matter how sincerely the prosecutor believes in what she's doing.

There are, of course, two sides to the story. The jury believed the state's. Fuster's plea for exoneration depends in large part on the word of his ex-wife, who has contradicted herself three times. But there can be no ambiguity about the implications of Reno's refusal to discuss her role in the case.

"I haven't looked at the file in 15 years, I would need you to bring me all the files, and I don't foresee having the time to go through the files," Reno told Frontline. This has become a familiar form of stonewalling with her. When Times political editor Adam Smith tried to ask her whether she is comfortable with Florida's death penalty, she answered, "I have not reviewed all the cases within the system, so I can't answer that." One of those death cases, among the 100 or so she prosecuted at Miami-Dade, was so flimsy that the Florida Supreme Court not only reversed the conviction but dismissed the charge.

Many politicians duck and weave, as she does, to avoid saying how they'd finance their campaign promises. To refuse to discuss one's record in office is a different, more serious matter. It suggests arrogance of power, a trait that becomes less and less tolerable in inverse proportion to the importance and authority of the office sought.

In Florida, it is the governor, not the attorney general, who oversees the 20 state attorneys. When they err, courts can correct them; on many occasions, however, the governor is the only person who can ensure that justice is eventually served. Reno knows this from personal experience. On assignment by then-Gov. Bob Martinez in 1989, she documented that James Richardson, a fruit-picker, had been unfairly convicted for the poisoning deaths of his seven children, and he was freed after 21 years in prison. On that occasion, she did not shrink from faulting the work of another prosecutor. With her own record now under attack, she serves herself poorly by refusing to discuss it. The voters will not let it go at that.