Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle is under attack by members of her own party — some of whom are calling for her resignation — in the wake of her decision not to file charges against corrections officers in the 2012 in-custody death of an inmate with severe mental illness.
Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party has drawn up several resolutions, including one for Fernández Rundle to step down, which will be introduced for a vote at a general membership meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The case of Darren Rainey, whose death led to protests and is part of an ongoing federal probe, is the latest and most troubling example of Fernández Rundle’s long record of failing to hold law enforcement officers accountable, some party members say.
Rainey, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was an inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, near Homestead, when he died in a shower in June 2012. Witnesses, mostly other inmates, have said that the officers placed Rainey (and other mentally ill inmates before him) in a shower that had been rigged to scalding temperatures as a means to punish their unruly behavior. The temperature controls were outside the locked shower, controlled by guards.
Rainey, 50, had smeared feces on himself and was led by the officers to the special shower — in another wing, far from his own cell in the prison’s mental health unit. At least six inmates told detectives said that they heard Rainey scream and beg to be let out before he collapsed and died. By the time he was brought to the infirmary, his skin was blistering off his body, and paramedics said in a report that he had second- and third-degree burns.
“Mr. Rainey’s death shocked the conscience of Miami-Dade and the entire country,” says one resolution, which was written by a subcommittee of the party’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Committee.
“Katherine Fernández Rundle’s inaction does not represent the values of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party represents the values of all people, including those in the state’s care. Her failure to hold anyone accountable in Mr. Rainey’s death places the most vulnerable prisoners at risk for more abuse,” the resolution says.
Party leaders are also concerned about what they characterize as the state attorney’s history of using state law and local policies that protect police officers as a mechanism for failing to take a more proactive role in bringing cases against law enforcement officers that could ultimately set new legal precedent and policy.
Fernández Rundle, through a spokeswoman, said her hands are often tied by court decisions and laws that make it difficult to prosecute police officers for on-duty use of deadly force. Her last prosecution of a police officer was 24 years ago, and the conviction was eventually overturned. When he was retried by her office, he was found not guilty.
Fernández Rundle has worked to reform stand-your-ground laws, and has asked for independent investigations of police officer shootings, according to her chief assistant, Esther Jacobo.
“This was a much-needed step toward transparency and building trust between police and our community,” Jacobo said.
Fernández Rundle did not ask for an independent investigation of the Rainey case. After he died in 2012, Miami-Dade police and the county medical examiner shelved the probe for nearly two years and revisited it only after the Miami Herald began investigating it in 2014. The autopsy wasn’t completed until December 2016.
Fernández Rundle says there was not enough evidence to bring charges, largely because the medical examiner, Dr. Emma Lew, was confident that Rainey’s injuries were not burns at all, but skin slippage that occurred after his death during the body’s natural decomposition process.
Lew has declined to discuss her findings with a reporter, except in writing.
Since Fernández Rundle announced there would be no charges, the Herald has obtained thousands of pages of reports, emails, testimony and crime scene photographs from the state attorney’s office, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department. The files show a number of flaws in the SAO’s investigation.
Among the most controversial portions of the state inquiry is the temperature of the shower. The report gives no indication that crime scene investigators turned on the water to see how hot it ran. A prison captain, assigned as the environmental health and safety officer, tested it two days after Rainey’s death and found it to be 160 degrees, far greater than what is safe. A person can suffer serious third-degree burns in seconds with exposure to water or even steam greater than 150 degrees. Rainey was in the shower for more than an hour and a half.
But the inspector’s reading was dismissed by the SAO as not indicative of the temperature when Rainey was inside. Police investigators also failed to scrutinize the prison’s health and safety records that may have shown a history of excessively hot water in the sinks at that prison. Rainey’s shower was different than all the others in that it was attached by a hose to a sink in an adjacent mop closet.
Photographs of Rainey’s body, taken in the prison infirmary after his death, show pieces of skin peeling off nearly every area of his body, from the tip of his nose to his legs. Two private forensic pathologists who reviewed the autopsy report and the photos say for the Herald they believe his death was a homicide and that his injuries are burns. The only way to determine conclusively is to examine skin sample slides taken during Rainey’s autopsy. The county has refused to allow that.
Since the release of her report on March 17, Fernández Rundle has dispatched several of her staff members to civic and political meetings, explaining her decision and criticizing what they’ve called “a false narrative” that’s been put out by the Miami Herald and the Miami New Times, which also wrote about discrepancies in the probe.
“We are all very upset about his death and very skeptical of the investigation and how long it’s taken and how it was handled,” said Juan Cuba, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Committee.
Two other resolutions have been drafted in response to the Rainey case: one that asks Miami-Dade’s mayor to authorize an independent review of Rainey’s autopsy and another that asks for funding for a county civilian law enforcement oversight panel.
In rejecting an independent review of the autopsy, the county’s lawyers cite Rainey’s family, which has asked that one not be done. (The family has a civil case pending and is conducting its own review.)
The Miami Herald’s lawyers contend that all documents and information, including glass slides of skin tissue, are open to examination under Florida’s public records law.
Howard Simon, executive director for ACLU of Florida, said a review is in order and would go a long way toward showing that there is no cover-up in this case. Simon met with Fernández Rundle recently to talk about the case and remains concerned that she has resisted independent scrutiny of the autopsy.
“Is the resistance because the medical examiner is a human being and made a mistake and that it might call into question other medical examiner reports and convictions based on her reports? This is a difficulty on the system, but not a difficulty with achieving justice.”
More groups weigh in
The Brevard County Democratic Executive Committee, the South Dade Democratic Black Caucus, and the Miami-Dade Progressive Caucus have already approved the resolution seeking the state attorney’s resignation.
First appointed in 1993, Katherine Fernández Rundle has served seven terms and has not had a challenger since 2012.
Democratic leaders recognize that she is not likely to resign even if the resolution passes. But they want their Democratic base to know that the party stands firm against civil rights abuses and is advocating for criminal justice reforms.
“We have her attention, and that is an opportunity to do something meaningful and achieve something to start the snowball of change toward changing the system,” said Juan Cuba, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Committee.