Florida Prisons

As she considers a run for governor, Fernández Rundle rebuked by her own party

Katherine Fernández Rundle
Katherine Fernández Rundle CBS4

Miami-Dade Democrats approved a resolution Wednesday night calling for State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle to resign, citing her failure to hold law enforcement officers accountable for criminal wrongdoing and civil rights abuses.

The local party’s criminal justice committee, which drew up the resolution, specifically pointed to the case of Darren Rainey, an inmate who died in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution five years ago this week. It was voted on at the monthly meeting of the party’s executive committee.

The rebuke comes as Fernández Rundle is considering a run for either governor or state attorney general.

Rainey, who suffered from mental illness, was locked in a hot shower by corrections officers, who left him there for 90 minutes. Inmates at the prison contend that guards used the shower to torment unruly inmates with unbearably hot water and steam.

The shower’s temperature controls were in an adjacent mop closet. At least six inmates told investigators he pleaded to be let out.

Erica Selig, a civil rights lawyer and member of the committee that drew up the resolution, said the party wants to send a message that state attorneys, including Fernández Rundle, need to represent everyone, especially those most vulnerable.

“This sends the message that there has been no accountability and prosecutors have been looking the other way when it comes to these kinds of cases. This does not represent the values of the Democratic Party, which believes there is equal justice for everyone, even victims who have mental illness,’’ Selig said.

Fernández Rundle appeared at a Democratic Party meeting several weeks ago to respond to criticism about her decision not to charge corrections officers in connection with Rainey’s death. Her decision, for the most part, rests with the ruling by Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Emma Lew, who found that Rainey’s death was an accident caused by schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement to a shower.’’

Lew concluded that there was no evidence that the shower was too hot and said the autopsy showed that Rainey did not suffer burns, despite paramedic reports to the contrary.

Critics have questioned her findings, and have lambasted Fernández Rundle for failing to conduct a more thorough investigation. Fernández Rundle and the county have refused thus far to allow an independent analysis of the autopsy findings.

Unlike prior Democratic Party meetings, in which protestors held signs and vocally criticized the state attorney’s record, Wednesday night’s meeting was more subdued.

“It was a sober atmosphere,’’ Selig said. “We had a moment of silence for victims of police brutality.

“We just had a voice vote, and I think I only heard one person say ‘no,’ ’’ Selig said.

Party leaders say they are upset at what they call Fernández Rundle’s 24-year record of failing to hold law enforcement officers accountable for wrongdoing.

The state attorney has countered that she has been hampered by Florida laws that give law enforcement officers broad protections. She nevertheless has prosecuted more than 300 law enforcement officers during her tenure, she said.

In March, after nearly three years investigating, Fernández Rundle declined to prosecute four corrections officers implicated in Rainey’s death. Rainey, 50, was serving a short sentence on a drug charge. Inmates and staff at Dade Correctional, a state prison on the edge of the Everglades, said that officers at the prison had been starving and torturing inmates in the mental health unit for years.

Fernández Rundle did not look into any of the other cases, but focused solely on Rainey’s death, which happened in June 2012. The case was shelved for two years but was restarted after the Miami Herald began investigating it in 2014.