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It’s been 25 years since William Hanlon and five other Miami-Dade County police officers were arrested in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance agent who tried to speed away on his motorcycle during a routine traffic stop in Miami. Four of the officers, but not Hanlon, were charged with manslaughter, accused of bludgeoning McDuffie with flashlights after he’d been wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. The officers, who were Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites, allegedly tried to cover up the crime by making it look like an accident. Despite Hanlon’s testimony against his former colleagues, an all-white Tampa jury acquitted the four officers in 1980. That sparked three days of rioting in Miami’s black Liberty City area. Eighteen people died in the riots, and more than 400 were injured. Hanlon, now 51, would like to put his past behind him. No longer a police officer, he graduated from Nova Southeastern University’s law school in May 2001, has passed the bar exam and is seeking admission to The Florida Bar. But the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has twice denied his application, based on his admitted involvement in the McDuffie incident. To be admitted to the Bar, applicants must show they have good character and are fit to practice law. Hanlon is appealing the board’s latest decision in March 2003 turning him down for the second time. During oral argument last week before the Florida Supreme Court in Florida Board of Bar Examiners Re: W.F.H., Hanlon’s attorney, Andrew Berman, claimed that his client should be allowed to practice law because he has strived to atone for the wrong he committed when he was a 26-year-old rookie cop. “There’s no question that what he did back then was a horrible thing,” said Berman, a partner at Young Berman Karpf & Gonzalez in North Miami Beach. “But he’s done everything he can think of to rehabilitate himself. What you have before you is a different person.” The Hanlon case poses a challenge for the Supreme Court, because the Bar Board of Examiners has wide discretion in determining whether applicants are fit to practice. The case may turn on whether justices believe Hanlon has adequately shown contrition. Walter J. Harvey, the president of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association, Miami-Dade’s main black bar group, expressed doubts about the appropriateness of admitting Hanlon to the Bar. “When you say McDuffie, people think of some of the worst racial and ethnic tension in the history of this community, and it all spawned from conduct undertaken by a few rogue officers,” Harvey, a partner at Steel Hector & Davis in Miami, said in an interview. Harvey stressed he wasn’t speaking for his Bar association. “I’m not sitting in judgment on [Hanlon]. But if he was one of those rogue officers, it’s going to be very difficult for me as a person to be supportive of a person’s applications under those circumstances, and it would be very difficult for the Bar to admit him. It would really create a problem.” Hanlon is now a lay Christian minister. He performed thousands of hours of pro bono work while in law school, served as a guardian ad litem in child abuse cases and volunteered in athletic programs in the black community, Berman told the justices during last week’s oral arguments. But the justices clearly were troubled by Hanlon’s abuse of his police power. They grilled Berman about Hanlon’s role in the fatal beating. Berman explained that Hanlon was on duty at 2 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1979, when he received a call requesting backup in the high-speed pursuit of a man on a motorcycle. When Hanlon arrived at the scene, McDuffie was off his motorcycle and was struggling with a group of officers. Hanlon stepped in, wrestled him to the ground with his nightstick and handcuffed him. According to Berman, Hanlon then moved to the side to dust himself off. That’s when the other officers surrounded McDuffie and started beating him. One officer, Alex Marrero, hit him over the head three times with his flashlight, Berman said. “A sergeant came on the scene after the fact and said, ‘This looks really bad, we have to make it look like an accident,’” Berman said. “My client was asked to do certain things to make it look like an accident, and he followed those directions.” “But what about this part that says he was showing the other officers how he could break Mr. McDuffie’s legs?” Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente asked. She was referring to reports that Hanlon had joked with his fellow officers about inflicting more injuries while McDuffie was lying on the ground unconscious. “Mr. McDuffie is on the ground, he’s been beaten three times and your client shows them how they can also break his legs?” Pariente asked. “That’s not just a cover-up, that’s allowing someone to die and not going to get help for that person.” “He’s explained it as callous humor,” Berman replied. “He doesn’t have an explanation for it. And I’m not defending it. He’s not defending it.” The Miami-Dade County state attorney decided not to prosecute Hanlon after he passed a lie-detector test in which he stated he was not involved in the actual beating, Berman told the justices. Rebuffed twice Days before the trial — which was transferred to Tampa because of concern that the officers could not get a fair trial in Miami — Hanlon was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. In the midst of the scandal, he voluntarily turned in his badge, but he has continued working for the police department as a civilian in the records bureau. Hanlon first applied for admission to the Florida Bar in 2000. But the Board of Examiners denied his application because of the McDuffie case. In its report in 2000, the five-member panel said that Hanlon’s involvement in the McDuffie case was not so egregious that he could never be eligible for admission to the Bar. But to qualify, Hanlon would need to do more to prove he was reformed, the board said. After that, Hanlon stepped up his charitable work, particularly in the black community, and personally apologized to McDuffie’s widow and children. In 2002, Hanlon applied again, and was rebuffed a second time. This time the board based its decision on what it said was his failure to take full responsibility for his participation in McDuffie’s death. Hanlon appealed to the Supreme Court, which has the ultimate authority over all lawyers who practice in the state. In a rare move, the high court agreed to hear oral arguments. Typically, proceedings involving Bar applications are confidential. During the arguments, the justices questioned where to draw the line between egregious acts that could never be forgiven and those that could be cured through rehabilitation. There are no written criteria for unequivocally barring someone from Bar admission. “Do you believe there can ever be something that is permanently disqualifying?” Justice R. Fred Lewis asked Berman. “I would say someone like Charles Manson could be forever barred,” he said. “Or if a law enforcement officer had killed someone in cold blood.” Berman noted that in Hanlon’s case, the Board of Examiners had specifically stated in its 2000 report that the former officer could be rehabilitated, and did not classify him as a hopeless case. But Tallahassee lawyer Thomas Pobjecky, representing the Board of Examiners, said the board’s written comments in 2000 about Hanlon’s potential for rehabilitation were “passing remarks” and were not binding. ‘What’s left?’ Pobjecky noted that the second panel that reviewed Hanlon’s application for Bar admission found that Hanlon hadn’t accepted full responsibility for his role. During relentless questioning by the board, Hanlon testified that he was “every bit a part of it as the person who delivered the blows.” Justice Raoul G. Cantero III asked Pobjecky why that wasn’t sufficient. “But now that he’s said all that, what’s left for him to admit?” Cantero inquired. “As a result of his questioning, there is none,” Pobjecky replied. “But that doesn’t resolve the issue. The board has the right to say how much sincerity is involved in an admission if they had to draw it out of you.” The justices repeatedly pressed Pobjecky for examples of what Hanlon would need to do to gain the board’s approval in the future. But Pobjecky said it was impossible to give them a list of concrete objectives. It’s a subjective decision made by the board after it has reviewed the evidence, he said. “Other than this one incident, what evidence of this man’s lack of moral character is there?” Justice Kenneth B. Bell asked. “This was the only misconduct we found,” Pobjecky said. “If you accept the proposition that he can be rehabilitated, he has done everything and anything he can to be rehabilitated,” Berman told the court. Law editor Harris Meyer provided additional reporting.

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