A federal judge on Friday ordered the Miami-Dade medical examiner to release key evidence in the autopsy of a mentally ill inmate suspected of being scalded to death in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution.
U.S. Magistrate Alicia M. Otazo-Reyes said re-cuts of the inmate’s skin tissue as well as other organs must be sent within 10 days to the victim’s family, as well as two other experts hired by plaintiffs in the case.
The court showdown over autopsy evidence was held after Miami-Dade County officials failed to comply with a subpoena requiring them to send the specimens to an expert hired by his family. County attorneys, citing a provision of the Florida Administrative Code, say that any inspection of tissue samples has to be done in the medical examiner’s office, where the examination would be “supervised.”
The hearing is part of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the state and others by Darren Rainey‘s family. The family claims that Rainey, 50, was burned over 90 percent of his body, and his temperature registered over 104 degrees after he was found dead in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012.
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The lawsuit alleges that Rainey — diagnosed with severe schizophrenia — was tortured by corrections officers who used a “shower treatment”’ against him and other mentally ill inmates at the prison. It claims the Florida Department of Corrections and Corizon, the firm responsible for the prison’s healthcare at the time of Rainey’s death, not only knew that mentally ill inmates were being abused at the prison, but allowed staff to cover it up.
The county’s argument about the evidence didn’t hold up because the Rainey family’s attorney, Vicki I. Sarmiento, pointed out that the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office invoked the state code — even though the office routinely sends out slides of organ and tissue samples to attorneys all over Florida.
“This is quite disturbing,” Sarmiento said.
Lawyers representing three other plaintiffs being sued by Rainey’s family also sided with Sarmiento, saying their forensic experts also said releasing slides is standard practice in the field.
Otazo-Reyes agreed, and ordered that sets of re-cut slides also be sent to forensic pathologists hired by Corizon and experts by the two corrections officers being sued by the family. The officers, Roland Clarke and Cornelius Thompson, were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle in March.
Dr. Werner Spitz, a nationally renowned forensic pathologist based in Michigan, has been hired by Rainey’s family to review the slides. Rainey family attorneys asked for the specimens on May 23, as part of a federal subpoena. They asked the county medical examiner to produce certain specimens, or “re-cuts,” of tissue samples that are embedded in paraffin in a glass slide to preserve them. The subpoena requested that the medical examiner send the re-cuts to Spitz in Michigan.
But the county demanded that Spitz come to Miami to review them in the county’s lab.
Forensic pathologists commonly request re-cuts of autopsy slides in civil and criminal cases to verify the cause and manner of death. Edith Georgi, a retired Miami-Dade public defender, testified that in her 30 years of handling homicide cases, she has never had to get a court order to get slides.
The county’s attorney, Christopher Angell, tried to argue that because the law had not been invoked in the past didn’t mean that it couldn’t be invoked now. Dr. Emma Lew, who took over as chief medical examiner in September, decided to enforce the rule, Angell said.
Lew ruled Rainey’s death an accident, caused by a combination of factors, including his mental illness, heart disease and “confinement to a shower.” Lew said that there was no evidence the shower was too hot, and that his skin — despite massive peeling — showed no sign of burns.
Her findings have been questioned by multiple forensic pathologists, including Spitz, who has written what is widely considered the “bible of forensic pathology’’and has practiced for more than 60 years.
Spitz said he couldn’t recall ever having to go to court to ask a judge to enforce a subpoena for a re-cut of a slide in a closed criminal case. Rainey’s case was closed in March, when Rundle wrote a report concluding there was insufficient evidence to prove that corrections officers did anything criminally wrong.
The shower was rigged so that the controls were in an adjacent mop closet accessible only to guards.