Janet Reno's career punctuated by highs, lows

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Story highlights

  • High points include prosecutions of Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, World Trade Center bomber
  • Janet Reno's brushes with Hollywood include "SNL" skit, "The Simpsons" cameo, music compilation

(CNN)Janet Reno lived a historic life.

Not only did the oldest daughter of two newspaper reporters become the first woman to serve as US attorney general, the Harvard Law School product would also go on to serve longer than any AG in the 20th century.
    The Miami native died Monday at age 78 after a battle with Parkinson's disease, more than a decade after her 24-year political career ended with a failed gubernatorial bid.
    Here is a quick look at a career punctuated by high-profile prosecutions and controversial tactics.

    Child abuse prosecutions

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    As Miami-Dade County state attorney, Reno earned a reputation as being tough on child abuse. But for all the cases she prosecuted -- including the 1984 Country Walk Babysitting Service case, which made headlines amid an era of national paranoia about sex abuse in day cares -- she came up relatively empty.
    Defendants were acquitted or won their cases on appeal. The wife of Frank Fuster, the target in the Country Walk case, years later retracted her testimony in the case, then retracted the retraction, according to the PBS newsmagazine "Frontline."
    Reno's record in these cases -- and her reticence regarding Country Walk -- prompted The St. Petersburg Times to print a critical editorial during her 2002 run for governor: "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."

    Waco siege

    The West Texas standoff between the US government and David Koresh's Branch Davidians began a couple of weeks before Reno was named President Bill Clinton's attorney general, but Reno's Justice Department is responsible for bringing the siege to its violent close.
    Reno approved the raid on the compound that ended the 51-day standoff on April 19, 1993, resulting in the deaths of 82 Branch Davidians (24 of them children) and four federal agents.
    Inquiries into the gunbattle and ensuing fire that consumed the compound dragged on for years. Conspiracy theories live on. Despite the controversy, Reno earned political points with a simple act of accountability, telling reporters, "I made the decision. I'm accountable. The buck stops with me."

    Microsoft monopoly

    Microsoft settled with the U.S. Justice Department in 2001.
    In 1998, Reno's Justice Department went after Microsoft Corp., accusing it of committing monopolization by bundling its Internet Explorer browser and Windows operating system in an attempt to snuff out competition, namely Netscape.
    "Consumers and computer manufacturers should have the right to choose the software they want installed on their personal computers," Reno said at the time. "We are acting to preserve competition and promote innovation in the computer software industry."
    Microsoft and the Justice Department eventually reached a settlement in 2001, after Reno's tenure as attorney general had ended.

    Freemen standoff

    Members of the Freemen holed up on a 960-acre ranch near Brusett, Montana, in 1996.
    When 20 or so Freemen holed up in 1996 on a farm in Montana, determined to dodge charges of bank and credit card fraud, the memory of Waco still resonated in Reno's mind.
    The standoff would endure 81 days and 42 negotiators, one of whom called the Freemen's escalating demands "sheer lunacy." On June 3, 1996, the FBI cut power to the farm, and the Freemen lasted 10 more days before surrendering.

    Nailing terrorists

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    She put some bad, bad dudes behind bars. Four of the highest crimes prosecuted by Reno's Justice Department imprisoned some of the country's most notorious criminals: Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber; Timothy McVeigh, orchestrator of the Oklahoma City bombing; Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and Mir Aimal Kasi, who killed two CIA employees outside the agency's Langley, Virginia, headquarters in 1993.
    Kaczynski received multiple life sentences and remains incarcerated at a Supermax prison in Colorado. Yousef is serving life plus 240 years at the same facility. McVeigh and Kasi were executed.

    Richard Jewell debacle

    While Reno's Justice Department had much success in prosecuting terrorists, its handling of the Richard Jewell case made him the poster man for the wrongly accused.
    Jewell was a security guard during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and when a pipe bomb exploded at the city's Centennial Olympic Park, killing two people and injuring 111 others, police were quick to suspect Jewell. The media followed suit, leading to months of unwarranted scrutiny.
    The next year, Reno said she was "sorry it happened," and if given the chance to speak to Jewell face to face, she would say, "I'm sorry."
    "I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak," she said. Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing in 2005.

    Reno v. ACLU

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled sections of the Communications Decency Act violated free speech.
    In 1997, the ACLU and other groups challenged provisions of the Communications Decency Act that forbade sending or displaying to a person younger than 18 material "that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."
    When a district court ruled in favor of the ACLU, Reno was charged with appealing the decision to the US Supreme Court. It didn't go well.
    All nine justices (two of whom dissented, in part) voted to strike down the provisions, saying they constituted a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

    Elian Gonzalez

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    The 6-year-old was on a rickety boat that capsized en route from Cuba to Florida, killing his mother. Relatives in Miami took the boy in, despite his father, back home in Cuba, demanding his son be returned.
    Elian became the fodder of political demonstrations in both Cuba and Miami. Reno set a deadline, ordering Elian be returned to his dad. Nine days later, on April 22, 2000, federal agents entered the house and took the boy.
    Reno later stood by the decision: "I will have peace in my heart and peace in my mind when everybody is home, wherever home will be, wherever the law leads us."

    Contempt of Congress alleged

    Attorney General Janet Reno testifies during a hearing on a 1996 campaign finance investigation on June 27, 2000, in Washington.
    In 1998, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to hold Reno in contempt of Congress for failing to hand over two key memos. Reno countered that the committee, namely its chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana, was playing "political football."
    FBI director Louis Freeh and Charles LaBella of the Justice Department campaign finance task force had recommended Reno request an independent counsel to investigate the fundraising practices of the 1996 Bill Clinton-Al Gore campaign.
    Burton subpoenaed both documents, but Reno said they contained secret grand jury material. She eventually handed them over. The House never followed up with a contempt vote of its own.

    Brushes with Hollywood

    Comedian Will Ferell's impression of Reno on "Saturday Night Live" prompted a former Justice Department spokesman to chime in: "Both in Florida and in Washington she has a great many friends whose homes she visits, and she goes to plays, her dance card is full. To portray her as a wallflower that nobody asks to dance is not only demeaning but inaccurate."
    It wasn't her only foray into pop culture. She also helped voice herself in an episode of "The Simpsons," in which she presided over the trial of Bart Simpson, accused of planting rotten eggs in the Springfield Elementary band members' instruments. The episode was dedicated to her late brother, who died of Alzheimer's.
    She appeared in an NFL ad featuring the star-studded guest list at Chad Ochocinco's Super Bowl Party and helped curate a three-disc music compilation called "Song of America" featuring tunes from Old Crow Medicine Show, John Mellencamp, Blind Boys of Alabama and dozens of other artists.