The Miami-Dade medical examiner is refusing to allow an independent review of key portions of a controversial autopsy that led to the decision last month absolving four corrections officers of blame in the death of an inmate they locked in a hot shower for nearly two hours.
Records obtained by the Miami Herald — as well as the observations of two forensic pathologists who have looked at the autopsy report — have raised questions about the medical examiner’s finding that the inmate’s death was an accident. Some inmates said the shower was used to punish prisoners with mental illnesses by exposing them to brutally hot conditions in an enclosed space.
Several witnesses, including the paramedic who saw his body immediately after his death, said that Darren Rainey had second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of his body; that he had suffered trauma, and that large swaths of his skin were peeling off his body. A prison inspector general report said 70 percent of Rainey’s body exhibited burns, including both arms, his shoulder, his left buttock and his nose.
Records show that a prison captain who took the water temperature of the shower two days after Rainey’s death logged it at 160 degrees — and she noted it was so hot she couldn’t stand under the water.
Rainey, an inmate with severe mental illness who apparently angered guards by rubbing human feces on himself, suffered no burns whatsoever and instead exhibited skin slippage — a peeling of the skin — during efforts by staff to resuscitate him, according to Dr. Emma Lew, Dade medical examiner.
Katherine Fernández Rundle, Miami-Dade state attorney, said the absence of burns would have made it impossible to prove that a crime had been committed. She emphasized that “science” showed that Rainey did not die from the actions of the corrections officers.
Rainey’s autopsy remained on hold for nearly three years, although it’s not clear why. The medical examiner asserted she was waiting for more tests, and Miami-Dade police said they were waiting for the medical examiner’s report. The Florida Department of Corrections also put its own probe on hold pending completion of the criminal investigation by Miami-Dade police.
It wasn’t until the Herald began asking questions about the case in April 2014 that police and the medical examiner closely examined Rainey’s death.
Lew’s findings have been a subject of intense interest since last year, when portions of the autopsy were leaked to the Miami Herald, including her conclusion that the inmate died of heart disease, schizophrenia and confinement in a shower.
The state attorney close-out memo stated there was no evidence that the water in the shower was hotter than normal. Rainey was locked inside the makeshift shower unit and the heat controls were in an adjacent closet, accessible to guards but not to the person showering.
Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist who was on New York State’s prison medical review board for 40 years, said skin slippage is “hot water trauma” that can only be caused by prolonged exposure to elevated water temperature.
Despite the controversy, Fernández Rundle, in a recent interview, said there is no need to obtain a second opinion because she is confident in Lew, who has conducted hundreds of autopsies.
“Understandably, there are some misgivings,’’ Fernández Rundle said. “Some are looking at the skin slippage as the appearance of burns, but the preliminary observations were disputed by the medical examiner.’’
Understandably, there are some misgivings. Some are looking at the skin slippage as the appearance of burns, but the preliminary observations were disputed by the medical examiner.
State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle
Another forensic pathologist, Dr. John Marraccini, reviewed the written autopsy report at the request of the Herald and had concerns. Last month, he offered to review the medical examiner’s entire file — including slides of Rainey’s skin tissue, a key piece of evidence — and issue an opinion. Marraccini, a former Palm Beach County medical examiner, has worked as a consultant and reviewed autopsies in the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office in the past.
After initially consenting to the review — and scheduling to have Marraccini do it on a Saturday — the county sent the Herald a series of emails delaying the procedure. First, officials said the department’s lone histopathology technician, an expert in changes in tissue, was ill but indicated the review could take place later, including an examination of the tissue slides. It was rescheduled for April 15. Then, four days before the reschedule review, a records clerk in the medical examiner’s office called the Herald to report another problem: An employee at the University of Miami who assists the medical examiner with preparing the slides was now ill.
Marraccini reviewed the police photographs taken of the shower the night Rainey died. One of them shows what he said appears to be pieces of skin rolled up on the floor of the shower. He questioned how there would be skin in the shower if, as Lew concluded, the skin peeled off after Rainey was pulled out of the stall and carried down to the ground floor of the prison wing, where the guards began resuscitation efforts.
Lew, who has 25 years of experience as a forensic pathologist, was appointed interim medical examiner in Miami-Dade after the death of Dr. Bruce Hyma in April 2016. Prior to that time, she served as Miami-Dade’s deputy medical examiner. The Miami Herald has not yet received a response to its request two weeks ago to discuss the case with Lew.
During the effort to have Marraccini examine the evidence, the Herald was in contact with the Rainey family attorney, Milton Grimes, hoping to obtain permission to allow the forensic pathologist to view the autopsy photographs, which are not a public record in Florida. Grimes said he was willing to allow the Herald to view the photographs, and even publish some of them, and was working on obtaining a notarized release from Rainey’s family.
As the Herald tried to arrange a new date for the review, the county attorney’s office sent another email to the Herald on Thursday, saying that, on further consideration, the slides were not a “record’’ at all, but rather human tissue and thus not subject to a public records request.
The Miami Herald’s attorney, Sanford Bohrer, disputed that in an email to the county.
“I think the public records law’s definitions clearly make these slides, which are not kept with or disposed with or buried with bodies but kept in files just like other documents, public records,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Assistant County Attorney Christopher A. Angell said Rainey’s relatives had contacted Miami-Dade and that they would not consent to the review of the slides.
The slides are samples of skin tissue that would show whether Rainey had suffered burns, Marraccini said.
“When someone has a burn, usually it’s not just the skin falling off — there is a border in the area where the skin is extra red and you look for an ambient pattern to see whether there is a burn,” said Marraccini, who agreed to do the review at the Herald’s request as a public service. “Really, this is a case that comes down to the microscopic tissue samples,”
Baden, who has reviewed the written autopsy report, said Lew’s conclusion that Rainey’s skin slippage happened post-mortem as his body began to decompose in a warm, moist environment is questionable.
“From all I’ve seen and all I’ve read, this was due to scalding hot water. You don’t get skin slippage in a few hours,” Baden said. Witnesses, including prison nurses, reported the slippage immediately after Rainey’s body was found.
After initially consenting to the autopsy review — and scheduling to have Dr. Marraccini do it on a Saturday — the county sent the Herald a series of emails delaying the review. Then it canceled the review entirely.
Grimes, who is based in California, has not responded to repeated emails, texts and phone calls from the Herald. He is representing Rainey’s family in a pending civil lawsuit against the Department of Corrections.
Rainey, 50, died on June 23, 2012, at Dade Correctional Institution, near Homestead. He was serving a less than two-year term for drug possession and was a few months from release. Born and raised in Tampa, he had been housed in the prison’s mental health ward, or transitional care unit, at the time of his death.
At least six other inmates told investigators that they, like Rainey, had been forced to endure painfully hot showers by guards who purportedly used the converted closet to quiet and sometimes punish unruly inmates in the TCU.
Fernández Rundle closed her case on March 17 without any charges being filed. A federal civil rights investigation is ongoing.