Pro Bono Spotlight

Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Michael Von Zamft

The Animal Legal Defense Fund would never be able to use the law to advance the interests of animals without the support of legal professionals nationwide. In this continuing series of spotlights, ALDF’s Animal Law Program salutes attorneys Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Michael Von Zamft.

It was a brutal crime spree that shocked animal lovers and grabbed national headlines. In the spring of 2009, 19 cats were found killed and mutilated in neighborhoods throughout Florida’s Miami-Dade County. As local residents feared for their beloved feline companions, law enforcement was busy following leads that led them to 18-year-old Tyler Weinman. Among other clues, Weinman showed an intense interest in the case and had participated in a high school anatomy class in which he dissected dead cats (authorities believe the class may have made Weinman feel comfortable carrying out his alleged crimes). Police arrested the teen in June, and charges against him include 19 counts of felony animal cruelty.

Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office assisted with the investigation and is preparing to prosecute Weinman. To assist them, the Animal Legal Defense Fund granted funds to be used for forensic testing and has secured the cooperation of expert witnesses who may testify at the trial. Although we deeply appreciate the hard work of Miami-Dade Police and everyone working to ensure the safety of animals in the county, ALDF would like to recognize the contributions of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft.

Katherine has served in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for more than 30 years. After devoting 15 years as assistant state attorney, she was appointed as the county’s first Hispanic-American state attorney in 1993 when Janet Reno, the former state attorney, was sworn in as attorney general of the United States. Katherine successfully ran for election in 1994 and has had four subsequent terms as state attorney. A graduate of England’s University of Cambridge Law School, she credits her father, Dr. Carlos Benito Fernandez, as her inspiration. Dr. Fernandez was Dade County’s first Hispanic judge, and his commitment to nurturing Hispanic involvement in the professional and political life of the county led him to become one of the founding members of the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA). Katherine’s 1991 election as CABA’s first female president is a tribute to two generations of Hispanic lawyers.

Among her many accomplishments, she created the state’s first Domestic Crimes Unit, helped form the Dade Partners for Safe Neighborhoods and was instrumental in ensuring that Miami-Dade’s celebrated Drug Court became reality. She also understands the importance of prosecuting crimes against animals. “As Dade’s state attorney, my job is to ensure the physical and emotional safety of this community,” says Katherine. “Serial acts of animal cruelty threaten that security today and tomorrow. I know that the assistance of the Animal Legal Defense Fund will bring expertise to our fingertips, knowledge into our courtrooms and justice for the people of Dade County, Florida.”

Michael Von Zamft has been an attorney since 1973. He was a criminal defense attorney for years until joining the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office 1995; he is currently a senior trial counsel handling homicides, organized crime and cases of public corruption. He has been a member of the criminal law section of the Florida bar as well as its chairman, and he has been chairman of the Criminal Rules committee. A dedicated educator, Michael has taught criminal justice at the University of Miami and held a faculty position at the South Eastern Circuit Advanced Advocacy Course at Oxford University’s Keble College (England) from 2002 through 2004. He has also taught trial practice at extensive seminars, including the prosecutor/public defender training program at the University of Florida Fredric G. Levin College of Law and has been a lecturer for the Crown Prosecution Service Higher Court Advocates Conference in Beaconsfield, England.

A passionate defender of animals, Michael also understands the pain animal guardians endure when their companions are victims of abuse. “In most animal cruelty cases, the animal suffers, unable to speak, and the owner speaks to us, unable to end their personal vision of the cruelty and suffering,” he says. “The help that ALDF has provided to our prosecution may help bring an end to such crimes, one perpetrator at a time.”

“The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office takes cases of animal abuse very seriously,” adds spokesperson Ed Griffith. “These are always cruel and vicious crimes in and of themselves; however, we also recognize that incidents of animal abuse can be a warning signal of other dangers and problems. Studies have shown that in a large number of animal cruelty cases, the violence displayed is an indicator of other family violence issues domestic violence, child abuse or elder abuse. There seems to be a strong consensus that a clear-cut connection exists between abuse aimed toward animals and violence aimed toward people.” Because the fear of violent retribution against a beloved household pet can often keep a victim of domestic abuse within the control of the abuser, Ed says domestic-violence shelters in Miami-Dade County have begun supplying boarding services for the animals of human victims.

Such a service is especially meaningful to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft, both longtime animal lovers who have each shared their homes with many companion animals over the years.

“It is great to see major jurisdictions leading the way on these types of cases by assigning seasoned, veteran prosecutors,” says Scott Heiser, director of ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program. “All too often, these cases go to the new kids on the block, who have very high caseloads and less experience in dealing with the intricacies of a major investigation like this one.”

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