Florida Prisons

An M.E. casts doubt on Rainey’s ‘accidental’ death

Darren Rainey
Darren Rainey Florida Department of Corrections

In his 40 years overseeing inmate death cases in New York’s prisons, Dr. Michael Baden says he has rarely seen a case as outrageous as Darren Rainey’s.

Three and a half years after Rainey’s death — in what witnesses say was a scalding shower at Dade Correctional Institution — the autopsy has still not been publicly released, and the criminal case remains open. Details of the report were leaked to the Miami Herald last week that his death has been ruled an “accident,” a conclusion that stunned Rainey’s relatives, who still haven’t been able to see the autopsy report.

“Why are they still covering it up?’’ asked Andre Chapman, Rainey’s brother. “How did they come up with accidental?”

Baden, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist who served on New York State’s prison medical review board for four decades, said there is no reason that Rainey’s family should still be waiting for closure.

“It’s extraordinarily unusual for an autopsy to take this long — and if people are thinking ‘this is a cover-up,’ well, this is what happens when it takes this long.”

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, completed last week but still under wraps, found that Rainey died from complications of schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement’’ in a shower on June 23, 2012, sources told the Herald.

It was an illegal setup. You can’t have a private shower like that set up without those officers’ superiors knowing about it. That was more like a torture chamber than a mental health station.

Dr. Michael Baden, forensic pathologist

Witnesses, including a nurse on duty that night, and several inmates interviewed by the Herald over the past two years, have said that two corrections officers, Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clark, forced Rainey into an enclosed, locked shower stall and that the water had been cranked as high as 180 degrees from a neighboring room, where the heat controls were.

Rainey, 50, suffered from schizophrenia and was housed in the Transitional Care Unit, the mental health facility at the prison. On the day he died, he had defecated in his cell, a possible “psychotic episode’’ spurred by his mental disorder, the autopsy report said, according to Herald sources.

Rainey screamed in terror and begged to be let out for more than an hour until he collapsed and died, witnesses told the Herald. Some of the officers taunted and laughed at him, some inmates who were in the unit at the time of his death said.

One of them, Mark Joiner, was later ordered to clean up pieces of Rainey’s skin that had slipped from his body, Joiner told the Herald in a 2014 interview.

That skin peeling, in conjunction with a process known as slippage or sloughing, was caused by prolonged exposure to water, humidity and the “warm, moist” environment, the autopsy concluded.

Baden, however, called into question several of the medical examiner’s findings.

“Well, you don’t die from schizophrenia,” said Baden, former chief medical examiner in New York City. “And skin just doesn’t slough off by itself.”

Sloughing, he said, is “hot water trauma” that can only be caused by prolonged exposure to elevated water temperature.

If pieces of Rainey’s skin peeled off simply from his being exposed to a lengthy shower spray, Baden said, then anyone who ever takes a long bath would find their skin peeling off their body.

A preliminary report by the medical examiner, written the day after Rainey died, said that Rainey had been locked inside the shower without access to the temperature controls. The investigator from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office characterized Rainey’s condition this way: “Visible trauma was noticed throughout the decedent’s body.”

In spite of the “visible trauma,” Miami-Dade police, who were tasked with investigating in-custody deaths at the prison, let the case languish for nearly two years, filing it away as an unexplained in-custody death.

In May 2014, the Miami Herald published the first in a series of stories about the death of Rainey and other instances of death and abuse at the prison.

Harold Hempstead, an orderly in the TCU who witnessed what happened, had sent letters to and filed complaints with police, the medical examiner and the inspector general for the Florida Department of Corrections for more than a year, trying to get someone to investigate. He said the second-floor shower had been used on other inmates to punish them.

Hempstead noted that there were 10 showers situated closer to Rainey’s cell than the one he was placed in. In all of the other showers, including one just a few feet from Rainey’s cell door, the inmate would have been able to control the temperature.

Hempstead reached out to the Miami Herald through intermediaries in early 2014, and after a journalist requested an interview with Hempstead, detectives announced that the case was still open.

Clark left the agency to take a job as an officer for Miami Gardens police, and Thompson was hired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Since the case became public, Hempstead has detailed a number of alleged crimes at the prison. He and others, including nurses and other staffers, allege that officers starved, beat and sexually abused inmates in the mental health unit. Hempstead contends that at least two inmates died while he was there as a result of food being withheld. One of Hempstead’s jobs, off and on, was to help corrections officers distribute food trays to the cells.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office must now decide whether to charge anyone with a crime in connection with Rainey’s death.

Baden, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist who served on New York State’s prison medical review board for four decades, called into question several of the medical examiner’s findings.

Abe Laeser, a former top homicide prosecutor in Miami-Dade, said the case would be difficult — but not impossible — to prosecute, depending on what other evidence investigators have uncovered.

The finding by the medical examiner that the death was “accidental” doesn’t necessarily mean a crime hasn’t been committed, Laeser said. He explained, for example, that if someone drowns in a pool, at first glance the medical examiner may find that it was an accident. Prosecutors, however, may find evidence that the victim was pushed into the pool.

“In this case, [Rainey] was in the water a long time, and he was screaming, so the question is why wasn’t someone monitoring him? The prosecutor must look at whether he was placed in a position where he really couldn’t fend for himself and that may have been the crime,” said Laeser, who is now retired and teaches law at Florida International University.

“Somebody knows. It’s getting someone to say what they know that’s difficult.”

Baden said the shower being rigged with external temperature controls should have been a red flag that there was a conspiracy that more people knew about than just Clark and Thompson.

“It was an illegal setup. You can’t have a private shower like that set up without those officers’ superiors knowing about it. That was more like a torture chamber than a mental health station,” he said.

“How could it be accidental when he had flesh falling off his body?” said Chapman, the brother, who recently moved from Tampa to Virginia.

“It’s been almost four years, and we still don’t understand,” Chapman said.

Rainey had been serving a two-year sentence on a cocaine charge and was only four months into his sentence when he died.

Chapman still goes over the details in his head that he was told when his brother died. He said he was only told that his brother collapsed in a shower. The death certificate lists “undetermined” as his cause of death.

Chapman has long been troubled by how the medical examiner’s office pressured him to get his brother cremated.

“They were rushing me to get him cremated or to do something with his body. I had no way of transporting the body, and I just couldn’t get there,” said Chapman, who lived in Tampa at the time.

The medical examiner’s office would not comment on the case because the criminal investigation is still open.

Rainey’s sister, Rene Chapman, said she will never accept the suggestion that the officers who put Rainey in the shower didn’t know that they would harm him.

“They were doing this to other people,” she said. “The only thing with my brother is they went too far. Now someone has to pay for this.’’

An earlier version of this story online mischaracterized the manner of death, as deemd by the autopsy, which was ruled ‘accidental.’

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