MIAMI, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Janet Reno, a former Florida prosecutor who rose to become the top law enforcement officer and first female attorney general in the United States, died Monday of complications from Parkinson's disease. She was 78.
Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson 's disease in 1995 and lived her final days in South Florida, where she began her prosperous legal career more than 40 years ago
Reno was U.S. attorney general for all but the first seven weeks of former President Bill Clinton's eight-year presidency, taking over for acting Justice Department chief Stuart Gerson in March 1993. She remains the second-longest-serving attorney general in American history, after William Wirt (1817-1829).
She brought an intense independence to the position, as well as a demand that department employees work outside the sway of external opinion. Her admirers believed she brought an increased level of integrity to the position, as well as an insistence on legal precision in the courtroom.
By the time she departed with the rest of President Clinton's administration in January 2001, Reno had presided over nearly all of the Justice Department's most high-profile incidents of the 1990s.
Less than a month into her tenure, Reno controversially ordered the FBI to raid the Waco, Texas, compound of anti-government religious sect leader David Koresh, which led to his death and those of about 80 followers in a subsequent fire. Four ATF agents were killed at the start of the 51-day siege.
Two years later, Koresh supporter Timothy McVeigh exacted revenge on the federal government for the Waco siege by bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people -- including many children in the daycare facility on the second floor. McVeigh, who was executed in 2001, later said he considered assassinating multiple government officials, including Reno, who he said he wanted to take responsibility for the 1993 Waco fire.
Five years later, she ordered 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzales removed from his relatives in Miami and returned to Cuba -- an action that angered Florida's Cuban-American community. She also investigated her boss' sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment by the House, but acquittal in the Senate.
Reno was criticized by business leaders for an ongoing investigation of alleged anti-competitive practices by Microsoft, and by civil libertarians for her handling of the espionage case of Wen Ho Lee, who was held for nine months in solitary confinement for allegedly stealing U.S. nuclear secrets for China before he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
But Reno was also praised by many for her commitment to civil rights, her efforts to regulate television violence, and aggressive prosecution of child support and child abuse cases.
After learning she had Parkinson's disease just two years into her tenure, she opted to continue serving as attorney general and became a role model for others managing the illness.
"Hillary and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Janet Reno, an extraordinary public servant who dedicated her life to advancing justice, equality, and innovations in criminal justice that would save and lift lives," Clinton said in a statement Monday. "Janet worked tirelessly to make our communities safer, protect the vulnerable, and to strike the right balance between seeking justice and avoiding abuse of power."
"Janet Reno was an inspiration and trailblazer for so many women in law enforcement and government -- including me. She will be dearly missed," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the nation's second female law enforcement chief, said Monday.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall, the self-described "awkward old maid" was a visible member of the Clinton administration, and once parodied her own image on an episode of the satirical television program Saturday Night Live.
After leaving the Justice Department, Reno ran for Florida governor in 2002 but narrowly lost the Democratic primary to Tampa attorney Bill McBride by less than 6,000 votes (0.4 percentage points). She never again held public office.
For the last 15 years of her life, Reno toured the United States and gave speeches on justice-related topics, and served on the board of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to exonerate innocent convicts through DNA testing.
In 2009, she was given the Justice Award by the American Judicature Society, which recognizes contributions for improvements in the administration of justice in the United States. Future Attorney General Eric Holder presented her with the award.
"I was privileged to have served with her at the United States Department of Justice. She was a strong leader who was unaffected by her physical limitations and who cared deeply about those who were too often neglected and marginalized by our society," Holder said in a statement Monday. "She was also a pioneer. As our first female attorney general she put innumerable cracks in an unjust and unwise glass ceiling. She was in the vanguard of those women who endured much and helped make possible the gender progress that our nation has long needed and is still making real."
"From her work as a prosecutor in Florida pioneering 'drug courts' that gave first-time offenders the chance to avoid jail time, to her leadership enforcing the Violence Against Women Act and Brady Bill as Attorney General, she never forgot that policy matters and makes a difference in the lives of real people," Clinton added.
"It's fitting that she spent her last years with family and friends, living in the house her mother built with her own hands. Janet was her mother's daughter. I will always be grateful for her service, counsel, and friendship."