Whatever happened to redemption?
Everybody says Bill Hanlon is a fine man and would make a fine lawyer. He has done free legal work, helped foster kids, volunteered at his church. But he did a terrible thing 26 years ago, and no matter how much good he does, he can't seem to live it down.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published May 21, 2006
On Dec. 17, 1979, William Francis Hanlon and five other police officers - all white or Hispanic men - chased a black man on a motorcycle through the streets of Miami.
When they caught the man, Arthur McDuffie, some of the cops beat him to death.
Hanlon, then 26, helped cover up the crime. He testified against the other officers in a Tampa courtroom. They were acquitted, and Miami's black community raged in protest. Eighteen people died during three weeks of rioting. The beating and the trial and the riots scarred the city for years. Some say Miami has never fully recovered.
But Hanlon tried to.
He volunteered at his Catholic church, refereed youth football games, raised two children. In his mid 40s he decided to become a lawyer so he could represent kids and poor people. He sailed through Nova Law School and passed the written Bar exam.
Passing the character portion of the test would be tougher.
Hanlon knew that for some, he would always be a "McDuffie cop," partially responsible for inspiring the worst race riots ever seen in Florida.
"It is a central, pivotal part of my life," Hanlon said last month in an interview at the Miami Dade Courthouse. "I did things I shouldn't have done and I failed to do things I should have done. Does that weigh heavy? Of course it does. I am burdened by that."
But he insisted he has become a better man - a good man, even - in the decades since the McDuffie killing.
"I recognize my role. I recognize what I have done," said Hanlon. "I have tried to do everything I can to reconcile it.
"Am I the same person that I was 27 years ago? Of course not. This was a catalyst for me. It was a recognition of my need to atone both personally and spiritually."
He never imagined how hard it would be to make people believe him.
* * *
Hanlon's Bar application contains these facts:
He physically restrained Arthur McDuffie with his baton around McDuffie's neck.
He handcuffed McDuffie.
He stood by while other officers beat McDuffie on the head with a flashlight, eventually cracking his skull "like an egg," the prosecutor at the trial said.
Hanlon carried out the orders of his supervisor, who told the officers to make it appear that McDuffie had died during an accident.
He joked to the other officers about where McDuffie's legs could be broken to make the injuries look accidental.
He drove a squad car over McDuffie's bike, used a tire iron to gouge the road and tossed McDuffie's watch down a gutter.
Hanlon's Bar application also explained that he was charged with manslaughter, aggravated battery and tampering with physical evidence.
The charges against him were dropped. He then testified against his fellow officers, and prosecutors agreed not to use that testimony against him.
Here is another set of facts that can be found in the application:
Hanlon willingly turned in his badge after the slaying and worked in a civilian job with the Miami Dade Police Department for 20-plus years without any problems.
He performed 300 hours of pro bono work while in law school and received accolades for doing so.
He helped distribute communion at his Catholic church.
He represented foster kids as a guardian ad litem.
He had been married to the same woman for 25 years.
Hanlon had his first hearing before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners in March 2000. He provided six letters of recommendation and brought six witnesses.
Hanlon is "fully qualified to be a lawyer and an honest and ethical lawyer and one who could be a credit to the Bar," testified Neil Sonnett, a lawyer and former Florida Bar president who represented Hanlon during the McDuffie case.
"I would recommend him to be sworn in as a practicing attorney," wrote Eduardo Gonzalez, former deputy director of the Miami Dade Police Department, former Tampa police chief and former head of the U.S. Marshals Service.
"I witnessed Bill move words into action when it comes to opening doors for African-Americans seeking to officiate college football in Florida. Bill gives everyone an opportunity to succeed," wrote Elmo Gary, a black Miami resident who lived through the riots and met Hanlon through local football games. "I said it before and I feel just as strong about it now that Bill Hanlon deserves a second chance."
Hanlon also told the examiners about what he called "his redemption."
"I've attempted to model my life correctly after this incident. I've asked for forgiveness as a result of this and I'm at peace with that. I'm not perfect. I've made a terrible mistake involving this incident . . . but I believe I still have something to give, to offer."
The board members asked few questions.
"Have you told your children of the incident?"
Hanlon said no. Until that time he had always felt they were too young.
No one spoke against Hanlon. No one wrote letters asking the board to reject him.
A few months later, the board's answer came back: Application denied. Hanlon needed more "rehabilitation," the board said.
The board said he could reapply in two years. Hanlon petitioned the Florida Supreme Court - the supervising body of the Bar - and in 2001 the court agreed with the Bar: wait two years and try again.
Hanlon went back to helping foster children. He recruited more youth football coaches and spent time in his church and with his family.
The hearing inspired him to tell his teenage children about that night in 1979. The family sat around the kitchen table, and Hanlon slowly explained.
When he was done, his daughter looked at him.
"You forgot the question you always told us to ask ourselves," she said.
"What question is that?" Hanlon replied.
"Would I do this if my mom and dad were here?"
"Yes," Hanlon said. "I did forget that."
* * *
While he waited for another chance to petition the Bar, Hanlon volunteered with Legal Aid of Broward County, which helps people with such issues as housing and social services. The agency often accepts volunteers who have been rejected by the Bar - some because they have DUI convictions, others because they bounced checks or drank in public as teenagers.
In 2001, Legal Aid assigned Hanlon to work on the Wingate Landfill case, involving 44,000 black residents in Broward County who were exposed to toxic waste from a Superfund site.
He dove into the case, taking photos of small children playing on the landfill and wrangling public documents out of local officials. He also became friends with the residents, Legal Aid director Sharon Bourassa said.
"Bill endeared himself to the black community," she said. "Bill stood out."
Bourassa would later testify for Hanlon before the Bar examiners - something she has done for only one or two other volunteers.
She firmly believes that he has repented for that night in 1979.
"A person who has suffered that much humiliation, they are the type of people who can empathize, sympathize with the poor," she said. "That humiliation makes us humble.
"I would hire Bill in a second, I would trust him with anybody or anything."
* * *
Hanlon had done a lot to turn his life around, but there was one conspicuous thing he had not done. He had never contacted the McDuffie family.
This omission had come up during the 2001 hearing. So in 2002 he wrote to the relatives. An acquaintance at the police station knew the family, and Hanlon asked that person to deliver the letter.
"I openly admit my wrongdoings," he wrote to them. "I acknowledge my failure in not trying to prevent that tragedy as well as my active participation in the cover-up of that crime.
"I have struggled with finding the courage and an acceptable way to say to you and your family that I am deeply sorry for the pain and anguish that my actions caused."
He never heard back. He wasn't sure the letter even made it to the family.
Hanlon made sure a copy of the letter was in his second Bar application. But it turned out the McDuffie family's reaction wasn't what the Bar examiners were most interested in.
* * *
The second hearing before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners was in 2003. One of the members wondered aloud what H.T. Smith, a noted black activist and lawyer in Miami, would think if Hanlon were admitted to the Bar.
The Bar never got an answer. Smith never testified, according to Hanlon's attorney, Andrew Berman. Smith never wrote a letter. There is no evidence he had ever contacted the Bar to discuss the case. When a reporter called Smith last month, his secretary said he refused to come to the phone.
As with the first hearing, no one testified against Hanlon. He again provided a stack of letters - 32 this time - from character witnesses. Many were written by lawyers, supervisors on the police force and people Hanlon had come into contact with through his volunteer work. A priest wrote a letter on his behalf. Five other people testified in person.
Hanlon included his most recent performance evaluation at work, which said that as a supervisor in the police records section, he was organized and well-respected. He gave proof that he volunteered 99 hours with Teen Court, a diversion program for young, first-time misdemeanor offenders.
Said the Bar:
"The Board is unconvinced if the applicant has now genuinely accepted his responsibility in the death of Mr. McDuffie."
Hanlon and his attorney were incredulous at the decision; the board's first ruling seemed to indicate that Hanlon would be admitted sometime in the future. "We felt that all we had to do was show more persistence, hard work and rehabilitation," said Berman. "The whole dynamic changed."
Rehabilitation, redemption, atonement - whatever you call it, lawyers argue every day that through hard work, religion and community service, a person can turn his life around. So why were lawyers themselves having such a hard time believing it in this case?
Again, Hanlon took his case to Florida's Supreme Court.
* * *
The court rarely accepts oral arguments on Bar admission cases; normally they read the testimony and decide within a few months what to do. But they accepted Hanlon's case.
On Oct. 4, 2004, Hanlon and his attorney walked into the Supreme Court chambers in Tallahassee. Hanlon - now 52 years old, his blond hair and mustache silver - sat on a mahogany bench in the audience. He wasn't allowed to address the court, and anyway, he was scared out of his mind. Berman presented his case.
One minute and 14 seconds into Berman's argument, one of the justices had a question.
"Can you tell us right off the bat, what are the concessions and admissions of the applicant as to the McDuffie incident that occurred in 1979 and his involvement in it?'' asked Justice Raul Cantero.
Berman said his client had admitted everything.
A few more justices had questions, then Justice Fred Lewis got to the point.
"You don't believe that there is anything that can ever be so disqualifying that would disqualify someone from being a member of the Florida Bar and be an attorney, with whom lives would be entrusted in the future?'' he asked.
Berman shot back: "I would say certainly someone like Charles Manson could be forever barred, but the point here is we are reviewing what the board did and the board itself conceded four years ago that this was not such a case. . . . The question that looms and the question to be decided is did the applicant show sufficient rehabilitation from June 2000, the date of the last report, until the present time?''
During the 34-minute hearing, the justices never asked about Hanlon's legal crusading on behalf of the victims of environmental racism or his volunteer work at the church or his blood donations.
They asked again and again about his role on that December night in 1979.
Tom Pobjecky, the attorney for the Bar examiners, said that during the first hearing, Hanlon appeared not to acknowledge the importance of his role in McDuffie's death.
Berman pointed out that Hanlon lawfully restrained and handcuffed McDuffie - and later passed a lie detector test on whether he administered any of the fatal blows.
"What else does he need to do?" Cantero asked the Bar's attorney.
"It's a straightforward question, but obviously there is no straightforward answer," replied Pobjecky.
Justice Kenneth Bell asked: "Other than this one incident, the 26, 27 years beforehand and the 25 or something years afterward, what evidence of this man's lack of moral character is there?"
Pobjecky said there was none. "That is it," he said. "That's it."
* * *
Over the years, the Florida Supreme Court has admitted to the Bar:
* A former police officer who was dismissed from the force because he used heroin he was also convicted of resisting arrest and had failed to pay back his student loans at the time of his application.
* A man who was dismissed from a university, lied on his law school application and knowingly participated in a criminal conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
* A man who was convicted of dealing cocaine.
When evaluating applicants with unpaid debts, bankruptcies and criminal records, the court looks at the prospective lawyer's conduct since the incident. Things such as a "desire to conduct one's self in an exemplary fashion,'' good professional reputation, and "unimpeachable character and moral standing in the community" are all considered to be elements of "rehabilitation." The more egregious a person's past behavior, the more rehabilitation - community service, volunteer work, letters of recommendation - is needed.
Candor is also essential.
In 1994, the court said: "While there is no litmus test by which to determine whether an applicant for admission to the Bar possesses good moral character, we have said that no moral character qualification for Bar membership is more important than truthfulness and candor."
* * *
While the Supreme Court was considering Hanlon's case, a story on his quest to become a lawyer appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. It quoted a certain person saying she wouldn't object if Hanlon were admitted to the Bar.
"We have not heard from him personally, but if he truly is sorry and it is true that he has become a man of God, then I can forgive him."
The person quoted was the Rev. Shederica Williams, McDuffie's daughter.
* * *
On April 20, 2006 - 18 months after it heard Hanlon's case - the Supreme Court issued a one-paragraph ruling.
Hanlon didn't receive any phone call or letter. He found it on the court's Web site, which he had checked every Thursday for 18 months.
The court ruled that Hanlon's judgment and conduct that December night in 1979 were too egregious to admit him to the Bar.
"We further conclude that under the totality of the circumstances, the grievous nature of the misconduct mandates that (Hanlon) not be admitted to the Bar now or at any time in the future."
"Where is the equity in this process?" Hanlon said in an interview. "How would Bill Hanlon being admitted to the Bar harm the citizens of Florida?"
On May 3, Hanlon asked the Florida Supreme Court to rehear the case. If that fails, he's not sure what he'll do. Even though he could draw a fine pension from the police department, he's not ready for a golf- and barbecue-filled retirement.
"Helping others is not only the right thing to do, I get great satisfaction out of it," he said. "I've led a Jimmy Stewart-like life. I believe that things happen for a reason. Had this not occurred, my life would not have intersected with many, many other people whom I was able to help.
"I think the court has never had to face a good man who did a bad thing a very, very long time ago."
Tamara Lush can be reached at (727) 893-8612 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.