On May 30 — just days after discussing the prospect of running for higher office with top Democrats — State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle appeared at a packed meeting of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party Executive Committee, equipped with an arsenal at her disposal.
At her side were four top prosecutors. On the wall was a screen to present a detailed slide show about her most recent controversial case. And in front of her she had a list of talking points.
Fernández Rundle was trying to quell the raucous crowd amid a growing backlash by civil rights advocates and others in her own party protesting what some said was her abysmal record of prosecuting corrupt and abusive law enforcement officers.
Among the accomplishments she touted: “Since I’ve been state attorney, we have convicted...’’ she continued, emphasizing the word convicted twice. “... convicted over 315 police and corrections officers during my tenure, and many have gone to prison for 10, 15, up to 50 years.”
Some in the crowd, dotted with protest signs, groaned with skepticism — and for good reason. It wasn’t true.
It was one of a series of incomplete or misleading statements presented by Fernández Rundle and her team, who have been on a community campaign to discredit media reports about her record.
The meeting came two days after Fernández Rundle met at her home with Democratic power brokers to discuss a potential run for governor or attorney general in 2018. Among the problems that came up: the lingering controversy over Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old black man diagnosed with schizophrenia who died in custody at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012.
In March — five years after his death — Fernández Rundle decided there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against four corrections officers accused of using scalding showers to punish Rainey and other inmates in the prison’s mental health unit.
Rainey — who was serving a short sentence on a drug charge — had smeared feces on himself, and the guards led him to a shower to clean up. Instead of taking him to one of several showers that were closer to his cell, they walked him over to another wing, where there was a shower that had been rigged with a hose attached to a sink in an adjacent mop closet.
Witnesses, most of them inmates, said the officers turned the temperature up too hot and walked away, while he pleaded for help and steam filled the stall. About 90 minutes later, the guards found him collapsed over the drain. Large swaths of his skin had peeled from his body by the time he was carried to the infirmary.
Since Fernández Rundle’s decision, questions have been raised about whether the police investigation and the autopsy were thorough — and whether the state attorney excluded key evidence from witnesses and paramedics in her final report.
Both Miami-Dade police and the county medical examiner inexplicably did nothing to resolve the case for two years, leaving Rainey’s family in limbo. Finally, in 2014, they reopened the case when the Miami Herald began investigating it.
Another two years went by. Finally, in late 2015, Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Emma Lew concluded that Rainey’s death was an accident caused by complications from his mental illness, heart disease and confinement to a shower. Police detectives said they found no evidence that the shower was abnormally hot — although they never measured the water temperature at the time of his death. Lew determined that Rainey was not burned, explaining that his “skin slippage” was the result of post-mortem decomposition.
The case, however, has been a flashpoint in the debate over law enforcement officers who use excessive and deadly force. Civil rights activists and some Democratic leaders believe that Fernández Rundle hasn’t been aggressive enough in prosecuting officers who break the law.
Standing at the lectern before a sweaty, standing-room-only group at a Miami Springs union hall, Fernández Rundle acknowledged her critics:
“Now, I’ve heard it said that maybe we have a problem — and I can see by the signs — have a problem investigating and prosecuting police officers and corrections officers, but that’s simply not true and our record supports that,’’ she said.
She stated that there have been 315 police officers convicted under her watch, and as the crowd murmured, she invited those in the audience to submit a public records request if they didn’t believe her.
The Herald filed a records request the following day. Fernández Rundle’s office provided a list of 315 names but offered no information about what each officer was convicted of. After the Herald pushed for more information, Fernández Rundle acknowledged that not all those officers had been convicted.
“It came to my attention yesterday evening that I misspoke at the meeting Tuesday, reference the prosecution/conviction of police and correction officers,’’ she wrote in an email to the Herald.
“I should have said prosecuted, not convicted. Not all those prosecuted are convicted, for instance acquittals; cases sealed/expunged would be exceptions.’’
Three weeks later, Fernández Rundle’s office provided the Herald with a list of 171 officers who had been convicted, pleaded guilty or whose cases were still open, on charges ranging from petty theft to racketeering.
But Fernández Rundle, in office for 24 years, has failed to explain how she could conflate convictions and prosecutions. The mistake made the head of Miami-Dade’s police union laugh.
“They’ve maybe had a handful of convictions. They have a habit of categorizing them in such a way to make it appear that they’ve made all these public corruption cases,’’ said John Rivera, president of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association.
“So, for example, an officer gets convicted of DUI or domestic violence, they put that down as a conviction under public corruption. Their record is so dismal on public corruption prosecutions that that’s how they do it, to make it look like they have good record.’’
The public outcry over the Rainey case mirrors a national divide over racial and ethnic disparities in policing, with people of color pointing out that they are more likely than white people to be stopped, searched and killed by police officers or abused in custody. Civil rights groups contend that even when it seems clear that an officer acted criminally or negligently, it’s rare that they are held accountable.
They’ve maybe had a handful of convictions. They have a habit of categorizing them in such a way to make it appear that they’ve made all these public corruption cases.
John Rivera, president of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association
In the past 28 years, only one law enforcement officer in Miami-Dade County was prosecuted and convicted in a shooting — William Lozano, in 1989 — and that conviction was overturned.
“When I heard she was running for governor, I immediately said she is looking for a graceful way to exit so she doesn’t leave under a cloud,’’ said Rivera, who supported Fernández Rundle early in her career. “Now her party is turning on her and she wants to leave with all her flags up.’’
Rivera, who runs one of the most powerful police unions in the country and has been known to criticize the state attorney’s office, believes that Fernández Rundle’s problem isn’t that she doesn’t go after police officers — it’s that she takes too long to bring the cases to conclusion, leaving both the officers and the victims with no closure, sometimes for years.
“The longer you let something sit on a shelf, then people don’t remember it, but that doesn’t do anyone justice from our perspective — not the police officers or the public.’’
At the Democratic committee meeting, Fernández Rundle talked about the difficulty in prosecuting police officers, who have wide protections under Florida law. But, she said, those obstacles are not as crucial as staying true to her principles.
Our guiding principles are ‘was there a violation of the law and, can any persons be held responsible for those acts — and whether sufficient evidence exists that can be proven in a court of law,’ not the court of public opinion.
Katherine Fernández Rundle
“Our guiding principles are ‘was there a violation of the law and, can any persons be held responsible for those acts — and whether sufficient evidence exists that can be proven in a court of law,’ not the court of public opinion.’’
In claiming the 315 convictions, Fernández Rundle said “many’’ of the officers had gone to prison for 10, 15 and even 50 years.
Fact: In Fernández Rundle’s response to the Herald’s public records request, she provided a separate list of convictions — nine of them. One law enforcement officer was sentenced to 50 years, two to 10 years and one for eight years. The rest of the nine received four years or less.
Meanwhile, Chief Assistant Kathleen Hoague presented a slide show to dispel what Fernández Rundle has called “a false narrative’’ in the media about the Rainey case.
The slide show listed four critical questions, answered by Hoague, who showed graphic photographs of Rainey’s nearly naked body, taken in the prison infirmary after his death. Here are her questions:
Question 1: Was Mr. Rainey burned?
Hoague said Miami-Dade’s Medical Examiner Emma Lew found that Rainey’s death was an accident and he suffered no burns — a conclusion that Fernández Rundle said was critical to her decision not the charge the officers.
Fact: Lew took a single sample from a single area of Rainey’s skin to test for burns, so it’s not clear whether she sampled portions of his body that were relevant. A paramedic who responded to the prison wrote that prison staff told him that Rainey had been burned over nearly a third of his body. He also wrote that it appeared that his injures were second- and third-degree burns.
Hoague said there were no burns on Rainey’s feet — an unlikely outcome, she said, had he been standing in scalding water.
Fact: Witnesses said Rainey was wearing shoes, one of which is visible in a photo of the shower stall taken shortly after his death.
County officials have refused to allow an independent review of Lew’s findings, which have been questioned by two forensic pathologists who reviewed the autopsy and photographs for the Herald. The doctors were not paid for the review, as the state attorney’s office has suggested, but conducted it as a public service.
Fernández Rundle: “I’m told the Rainey family themselves do not want another review by a different medical examiner of tissue samples. I take the Rainey family wishes very seriously and they mean a lot to me.’’
Fact: Rainey’s family is, in fact, not satisfied with Lew’s conclusion and does want an independent review. It has arranged for its own forensic pathologist.
Question 2: Was the water temperature at the time Mr. Rainey was in the shower 160-180 degrees?
Hoague correctly stated that no one knows exactly what the temperature was at the moment Rainey took his shower. However, she left out key details, and distorted the facts surrounding temperatures taken two days after his death.
Fact: Lew, despite believing that Rainey’s injuries were not from scalding water, did ask Miami-Dade police detectives to return to the prison to take a water temperature reading right after his death. Detectives inexplicably failed to do that.
Hoague also misstated information about water temperatures measured two days after Rainey’s death.
Hoague: “The first temperature reading was 120-126 [and] was taken by Assistant Warden [James] McClellan in the morning with a digital thermometer,’’ Hoague told the crowd. On the slide, another reading was listed under McClellan’s: one taken by Capt. Darlene Dixon, which was 160 degrees.
Fact: The state attorney has provided no evidence that McClellan’s reading came first. The Herald has asked the state attorney to provide evidence of this, but the office has thus far failed to do so. Furthermore, Dixon asked prison maintenance staff to adjust the temperature after her reading, according to an email obtained by the Herald. It’s possible McClellan took his reading after it had been adjusted.
Hoague accurately pointed out that a temperature reading two days later did not mean the water was the same temperature that night.
Question 3: Was Mr. Rainey forced to stand under a spray of water?
Hoague contends prison video shows that Rainey was “voluntarily’’ taken to the shower by corrections officers.
Fact: The video also shows that he was handcuffed and wearing a garment similar to a straitjacket, so he had no choice but to go to the shower they escorted him to.
Hoague said Rainey was able to stand on the side of the shower to evade the narrow stream of water before his collapse.
Fact: She did not address the steam that he would have been exposed to from a 160-degree shower in an enclosed room. Her argument also didn’t mesh with explanations given by corrections officers, who said they locked him in that shower and left him there because he would resist showering and they could control the water (keep it running), rather than rely on him to turn on the spray.
Nor did anyone address the prison system’s five-page “forced hygiene compliance” procedure that is supposed to be followed when an inmate resists washing up. Among the provisions: having four corrections officers “restrain” the recalcitrant inmate while a fifth “bathes the inmate with a suitable sponge or bathing brush.” It prescribes video recording, requires filling out paperwork and the supervision of a lieutenant, duty warden or shift supervisor, except in an “extreme emergency.”
Question 4: Were the corrections officers criminally negligent?
Hoague focused her answer to this question on the charge of manslaughter, which requires prosecutors’ to prove that the officers knew or should have known their actions would cause death or serious bodily harm.
Fact: There are other charges that could have been considered, including “culpable negligence,” which involves actions that show a reckless disregard for human life or safety.
David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor who read large portions of the state attorney’s case file, believes that there was credible testimony from several witnesses who claimed that inmates in the prison’s mental health ward had been tortured with hot showers in the months before Rainey. He said that testimony, together with physical evidence, the temperature reading by Dixon and testimony from the paramedics who were told by prison staff that Rainey was burned in a hot shower, could have provided a valid legal basis to consider pursuing criminal charges based on culpable negligence.