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Janet Reno, Former US Attorney General, Has Died at 78

  • VOA News

FILE - In this 2001 photo, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno speaks to the media at her Miami home after announcing that she would be running for Governor of Florida.

FILE - In this 2001 photo, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno speaks to the media at her Miami home after announcing that she would be running for Governor of Florida.

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, died Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease. She was 78.

Her eight-year tenure under President Bill Clinton began in 1993 with her authorization of an FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas that resulted in the deaths of 80 people involved in a lengthy standoff with federal authorities.

In 2000, she was again in the spotlight with the case of 6-year-old Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, whose mother's death left him in the custody of relatives in Florida. Reno authorized federal agents to seize Gonzalez so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

In between, she was known for a direct style, and worked to address anti-abortion violence and the amount of violence shown on television, and brought a major anti-trust lawsuit against computer giant Microsoft.

In 1998, Reno gave special prosecutor Kenneth Starr authorization to expand an investigation into an Arkansas land deal involving Clinton to also include an affair between Clinton and a White House intern. That effort eventually resulted in Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives, though he was later acquitted by the Senate.

Before Clinton appointed her as attorney general, Reno made history in the state of Florida by becoming the first woman to serve as the top prosecutor in Miami.

She later mounted an unsuccessful 2002 campaign to be the state's first female governor.

The campaign ended a public career that started amid humble beginnings. Born July 21, 1938, Janet Wood Reno was the daughter of two newspaper reporters and the eldest of four siblings. She grew up on the edge of the Everglades in a cypress and brick homestead built by her mother and returned there after leaving Washington. Her late brother Robert Reno was a longtime columnist for Newsday on Long Island.

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry, Reno became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School's Class of 1963. Reno, who stood over 6 feet tall, later said she wanted to become a lawyer “because I didn't want people to tell me what to do.”

FILE - Supreme Court Justice Byron White, right, administers the oath of office to Janet Reno making her Attorney General during a ceremony at the White House, March 12, 1993.

FILE - Supreme Court Justice Byron White, right, administers the oath of office to Janet Reno making her Attorney General during a ceremony at the White House, March 12, 1993.

In 1993, Clinton tapped her to become the first woman to lead the Justice Department after his first two choices - also women - were withdrawn because both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies. Reno was 54.

A little more than a month of taking office, however, Reno became embroiled in controversy with the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.

The standoff had started even before Reno was confirmed as attorney general. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made a surprise raid on the compound, trying to execute a search warrant. But during the raid gunfire erupted, killing four agents and six members of the religious sect.

FILE - Fire engulfs the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas on Monday, April 19, 1993.

FILE - Fire engulfs the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas on Monday, April 19, 1993.

That led to a 51-day standoff, ending April 19, 1993, when the complex caught fire and burned to the ground. The government claimed the Davidians committed suicide, shooting themselves and setting the fire. Survivors said the blaze was started by tear gas rounds fired into the compound by government tanks, and that agents shot at some who tried to flee. Reno had authorized the use of the tear gas to end the standoff and later called the day the worst of her life.

Things got no easier after Waco. In 1995 Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's after noticing a trembling in her left hand. She said from the beginning that the diagnosis, which she announced during a weekly news conference, would not impair her job performance. And critics - both Republicans and Democrats - did not give her a pass because of it.

Some information for this report was provided by AP

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