By Tiffany Razzano
Originally published Feb. 24, 2017
Many lawyers and judges envision a career in the justice system from a young age and make that their life’s goal.
Recently retired Judge William Fuente took a different path to the courtroom, though. As a child, he initially dreamed of a career in the medical field.
Born in Key West, he was raised in Tampa. His grandparents hailed from Cuba, Argentina and Spain, and both his parents were born in Tampa. His father was a machine operator for Southern Bakeries while his mother worked as a clerk at Eckerd Drugs.
Fuente attended B.C. Graham Elementary School, Washington Jr. High School and the original Jefferson High School before it was relocated. “All of them had large Hispanic student bodies,” he said.
The whole time he imagined he would go on to a career as a doctor. After graduating from high school in 1963, he attended a technical school through Tampa General Hospital. He went on to the University of South Florida to study biology, and to help put himself through school he worked as an X-ray technician.
He left USF to join the Navy in 1967. First he served as a hospital corpsman, serving first in a naval hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, before being shipped to a Marine Corp air facility in Okinawa, Japan.
When Fuente was discharged from the Navy in 1971, he returned to USF to finish his biology degree. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point in time other than get some kind of professional degree,” he said.
Initially, he thought he would move on to medical school to become a doctor, or maybe he would attend dental school. But by then he was a bit older than the typical medical student, and was married and had two children. So he wasn’t sure medical school was a good fit. He also considered becoming a hospital administrator, but thought it might be too competitive.
He had friends studying law, though. Several of them had applied to South Texas College of Law. This got Fuente thinking. “I thought maybe I would be a lawyer,” he said. So he applied to South Texas. “I got accepted and we trucked up there, my wife Maggi, and my two kids, Daniele and Jaret.”
He later learned that the Texas law school was a haven for future Tampa lawyers. This was because of the influence of Judge E.J. Salcines, who presided over Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal. “A whole ton of Tampa lawyers graduated from there,” Fuente said. “Curiously I didn’t know who [Salcines] was until after I applied to school there and was ready to graduate.”
Fuente spent two years in law school. He returned to Tampa in January 1976 for an internship in the Florida state attorney’s office, an internship he obtained with Salcines’ help. That same year, he passed the bar the first time he took it and was hired by Salcines as an assistant state attorney.
He worked for the state for several years before leaving to form a private practice. He was still drawn to medicine and thought perhaps he might specialize in cases involving the field, such as medical malpractice. “But I fell in love with criminal work,” he said. He ran a private practice as a criminal defense lawyer for nearly 15 years, trying hundreds of cases, many of them homicides. He became a board-certified criminal trial lawyer through the Florida Bar in 1990.
Even today, he said, he’ll be out in public – “walking downtown or in the mall or something” – and people will recognize him from representing their cases decades earlier. “I did a lot of trial work,” he said.
In 1994, Fuente was appointed to the Hillsborough County Court as judge by Governor Lawton Chiles. “I wouldn’t have done that because I didn’t believe I could ever become a judge – it was so political,” he said. “My wife urged me and urged me to do it.” He put his name in for the role several times before being appointed judge.
As county judge, he presided over criminal cases, mostly misdemeanors such as DUIs, he said. He recalls one time, though, when he stepped in on a high-profile case from a circuit court judge who fell ill. The case was the murder of Lobster Boy, a circus side show performer whose hands looked like lobster claws and who lived in the Riverview area. His wife had him killed, justifying it because he had been abusive. “There was an interesting legal issue in that case,” Fuente said. “We litigated a lot and I made the decision to allow the issue of self-defense to go to the jury. It was the first time it could be asserted in murder.” The wife was eventually convicted of murder.
After three years as a county court judge, he was appointed to the circuit court. Again, “I didn’t think it could happen,” Fuente said. “My wife encouraged me to apply and I did.” He’s thankful to the many lawyers and others who supported his appointment. “It was very, very humbling.”
For his first six months serving in the circuit court, he handled civil court cases before moving into the criminal trial division where he presided over felony jury trials, many of them involving death penalty litigation. He estimates that he’s tried about 900 jury trials since 1998, with 500 of those in the criminal trial division.
One of the high-profile cases he took on was the murder trial of Dontae Morris, who was convicted of killing two police officers. He also had several other homicide cases pending around the same time. Fuente tried three of these cases.
“It was difficult trying to maintain a sense of fairness for everyone involved, especially the defendant,” Fuente said. In such a high-profile case, it was difficult finding a jury with little knowledge of the case. “So I selected a jury in Orlando and tried the case here.”
He also presided over the case of Richard McTear, who was charged with the homicide of an infant after throwing him from a moving vehicle on the interstate.
Fuente, now 71, retired Jan. 2 of this year. Though there’s a law requiring judges to retire by age 70, the law also allows for judges who have completed more than half of their term by the time they’re 70 to see it to completion.
Since retiring in January, he’s spent time catching up on life, such as doctor’s appointments. He and his wife plan to spend time at the beach and to travel, though. They’re considering a trip to Cuba.
Fuente is one of several judges to retire this year. A handful of them all attended South Texas College of Law. So a group of Tampa attorneys, judges and others within the local legal system organized an event to honor them Jan. 12 at Carne ChopHouse. More than 500 people attended, Fuente said.
“It was amazing,” he added. “I just want to thank all the people involved in that. I’m so thankful for the people who put that together, who donated money to put it together. My wife and I appreciate everybody’s efforts.”
Retirement has been an adjustment for him, he admits. “The courthouse has been my and my wife’s daily environment since 1976,” he said. “That’s a long time.”