Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Who was Richard E. Gerstein and why is his name on the courthouse?

Richard E. Gerstein, Jan., 1966.

Most people simply call it "the courthouse."

Its official name is the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.

Constructed at a cost of $8.5 million; when it opened in 1962 it was known as the Metro Justice Building. 

Gerstein campaign ad,
Miami News
, Sept. 4, 1972.
(Click to enlarge)
In 1992 it was renamed to honor the late Richard E. Gerstein; Dade County's 6-term State Attorney who held office from 1956 to 1977.

The Miami Herald once called Gerstein, "the most powerful, controversial, durable and well-known politician in Dade County."

However, it's safe to say a majority of the people who pass through the doors of the REGJB each day probably couldn't tell you who Gerstein was if their life depended on it.

What follows, are a few glimpses into the life and career of Gerstein, told with clippings from the Miami News.

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Miami News, Oct. 19, 1957.

Miami News, May 4, 1962.

Miami News, Feb. 26, 1964.

Click to enlarge.

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Miami News, July 15, 1964.

Miami News, Aug. 24, 1972.

Sept. 1, 1972. (AP)

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EX-PROSECUTOR RICHARD GERSTEIN DIES

Miami Herald, April 27, 1992

Former Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein, a larger-than- life figure in Dade County politics for more than 20 years and one of Florida's most colorful and influential prosecutors, died of an apparent heart attack early Sunday. He was 68.

The towering, imposing prosecutor gained national prominence in 1973 by winning the first conviction in the Watergate scandal that would eventually force the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Gerstein's conviction of Bernard Barker on money-laundering charges in Miami linked the White House directly with the 1972 burglary at the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

And as a lawyer in private practice last year, Gerstein briefly saw the spotlight again while representing comedian Paul Reubens -- television's "Pee-wee Herman" -- against public indecency charges in Sarasota.


[...]


Gerstein's often stormy career in the state attorney's office spanned much of the turbulent 1960s and '70s and was marked by highly publicized battles against South Florida mobsters, gamblers and corrupt politicians, as well as his own crusades against what he viewed as vice, pornography and perversion.

"This thing gets in your blood," he told an interviewer in 1967. "The excitement of something new each day, the challenge of holding so large an office together. Call it ego if you like, but it's exciting."

Gerstein's political legacy includes a long line of former assistants who, after gaining visibility and experience under him, went on to successful careers of their own in politics and the law. The list includes incumbent State Attorney Janet Reno, whom Gerstein hand-picked as his successor when he stepped down in 1977, as well as Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, Dade Chief Judge Leonard Rivkind and the late U.S. District Judge Eugene Spellman.

"I still feel his influence today," Reno said. "How would he do this? What would Gerstein do? What would he think?"

Gelber, who served as Gerstein's administrative assistant through the late 1950s and into the 1960s before becoming a circuit judge, said Gerstein pioneered many of the administrative and prosecutorial methods that are standard practice today.

"He was part of the transition of Miami from an old sleepy city into a modern government," Gelber said. Richard Earle Gerstein was born in Pittsburgh on Sept. 5, 1923, and spent many of his childhood winters on Miami Beach before enrolling at the University of Miami. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and, on his 21st birthday over Ludwigshaven, Germany, Gerstein's plane was hit by flak and he was struck in the face. Half-blind and unable to speak, according to the citation he would later receive, Gerstein guided other crewmen back to the allied side with hand signals. For his valor he received a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.

At the end of the war, Gerstein returned to UM and earned undergraduate and law degrees. He also threw himself into politics. He became president of Dade's Young Democrats and fashioned friendships that would serve him well in 1956 when, at the age of 33, he defeated the incumbent prosecutor. When Gerstein was sworn in, the entire office staff included 55 people. When he announced his resignation in 1977, it had grown to 310, including 100 prosecutors lawyers and a staff of investigators.

Throughout his tenure, Gerstein proved more than adept at grabbing headlines, not always for the better. At six-feet-five, 215 pounds and nearly bald, he struck a commanding physical presence in the courtroom. He had a habit of staring balefully at defendants with his single good eye and a manner that made him seem personally affronted by every crime.

In addition to playing tough with murderers and rapists -- Gerstein boasted of a 90 percent conviction rate and on the number of killers he helped send to the electric chair -- he fought with mixed success to clean up such rackets as greyhound race-fixing, bookmaking, bolita, prostitution and back-alley abortions.

He successfully went after Miami Beach and Dade County politicians who pocketed money from zoning and other deals, jailed "ambulance-chasing" lawyers and spent years trying to convict Dade Sheriff Tal Buchanan, who was suspected of protecting racketeers in the early 1960s.

Largely through Gerstein's efforts, the state of Florida took over the licensing and regulation of pari-mutuel wagering, a step that went a long way in eliminating organized crime influence.

But in his early years he also undertook other crusades that, in retrospect, made him appear almost prudish.

During his first decade in office, Gerstein waged constant battle against what he viewed as pornography. He tried repeatedly to shut down adult movie theaters and he personally purchased nudist magazines in attempts to bring cases against magazine shop owners.

In perhaps his most publicized case, he prosecuted the owner of Whelan's Drug Store in Miami Beach for selling a copy of Henry Miller's acclaimed novel Tropic of Cancer for 95 cents. "Clearly obscene and pornographic," Gerstein called it.

He failed to win a conviction. Yet he insisted he opposed censorship. "We've acted only on complaints about straight garbage. Junk that no one even pretends has any literary merit," he said then.

In the early 1960s, Gerstein targeted homosexuals after a national magazine listed Miami as one of six U.S. cities favored by them. In addition to developing lists of people suspected of being what he called "perverts," Gerstein defended his crusade, saying that homosexuality "inevitably leads to serious criminal activity, including blackmail and extortion based on knowledge of the deviate's actions."

At one point, Gerstein went after shop owners who sold cigarettes to youths under age 15. And after the famous 1965 fight in which the young Cassius Clay -- who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali -- beat Sonny Liston for boxing's heavyweight crown, he opened an investigation, apparently unsatisfied that Liston really had torn a ligament in his right shoulder that forced him to throw in the towel.






5 comments:

  1. Soon there will be a similar post-mortem for KRF.

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  2. Proud to say he was a good friend. Loved women, good wine and horses. Taught me to read a racing form.

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  3. My mother was his personal secretary. She liked him, said he was tough but kind.

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  4. Richard Gerstien was Dade County Prosecutor in Miami-Dade ( formerly known as Dade County)During thee 1960's. He was good at his job too. Then along came the trial of Candace Mossler. Which He lost and was really pissed off about losing that case. He said to my father John H. Hoover Sr.That he was going to screw up one day and he was gonna bury him. Well he did before the end of the 1960's and early 70's. By putting my father in Raiford State Prison For 5 years. And that is why I know who he was. There is no dislike for him by me, he was just doing his job. I will absolutely say that man man was Damn good at his job too. RIP Mr. Gerstein

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  5. My step-father worked for Mr. Gerstein during the 60s. I believe that was the highlight of his career. I was called for jury duty at the Richard Gerstein a few years ago. It felt that life had come full circle. RIP Mr. Gerstein and Sam Kleinfeld!

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