Janet Reno, first female U.S. Attourney General, dead at 78

by | Nov 7, 2016 | News

By: Ken Kellar

Janet Reno, the first woman appointed to the position of Attorney General in the United States, has died at age 78.

Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1995, while she was still in office as the Attorney General. Reno’s sister said on Monday morning that complications from Parkinson’s was the cause of death.

Over the course of a historic career and almost eight years in office as the Attorney General, Reno dealt with a number of controversies, most notably the siege on the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas, in 1993. Another was the 2000 custody battle over Elián González, a Cuban boy whose mother drowned during their attempt to flee the country.

A number of notable people expressed condolences and shared memories of working with Reno on Twitter.

Reno was lauded for her integrity in her position as Attorney General, as well as her willingness to take responsibility for her actions, like the infamous Waco raid.

The Branch Davidians were accused of sexually assaulting minors in their compound, as well as stockpiling weapons and ammunition. The siege of their compound, called the Mount Carmel Center, began on Feb. 28, 1993, just twelve days before Reno took office as Attorney General. As officers for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms moved on a warrant to arrest the cult leader David Koresh, men inside the compound took up defensive positions and a misfire from one side of the incident became the catalyst for the raid.

Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died during the raid. The standoff that followed lasted 51 days, and ended on April 19 when Reno authorized a request from the FBI to mount an assault on the compound. The FBI used explosives to punch holes in the walls of the compound to facilitate the use of tear gas. At some point after the raid had begun, fires broke out around the compound, which the U.S. government has maintained were started by the Davidians.

The raid was widely televised.

Months after the incident, Reno testified in front of a Congressional committee that was investigating the Waco siege, during which she took responsibility for the decision to call in the FBI and storm the compound. 76 people, including Koresh, died in the final raid, many of which were women and children.

“This was the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” said Reno during her testimony, “Probably one of the hardest decisions that anybody could have to make. It will live with me for the rest of my life. I’m accountable for it.”

The other flashpoint of her tenure as Attorney General came in 2000, when a ship of Cubans seeking to enter the United States sank. One of three survivors from the ship was a young boy, Elián González. What followed was a five-month-long custody battle waged across international borders as Gonzalez’ maternal relatives in the U.S. fought to keep him in America, while his father demanded his return to Cuba.

Reno set a deadline for the boy to be handed over by April 13, 2000. A week after the deadline, and with no attempt by the Miami relatives to hand Gonzalez into custody, Reno authorized law enforcement officials to enter the residence the boy was being kept at and take him by force.

When border patrol officers entered the house to take Gonzalez into federal custody, Alan Diaz, a photographer working for the Associated Press, took a photo of an armed officer finding Gonzalez and one of his rescuers in a closet. This photo won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2001.

Reno was born in Miami in 1938 to a pair of working journalists, the first of four children.

She graduated from Cornell University in 1960 with a degree in chemistry, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963.

Before she served as Attorney General, she was a member of staff of the Judiciary Committee in the Florida House of Representatives and was appointed Florida’s State Attorney in 1978.