By Jerry Iannelli miaminewtimes.com
On June 23, 2012, Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic man serving time for cocaine possession, was thrown into a prison shower at the Dade Correctional Institution. The water was turned up top 180 degrees — hot enough to steep tea or cook Ramen noodles.
As punishment, four corrections officers — John Fan Fan, Cornelius Thompson, Ronald Clarke and Edwina Williams — kept Rainey in that shower for two full hours. Rainey was heard screaming “Please take me out! I can’t take it anymore!” and kicking the shower door. Inmates said prison guards laughed at Rainey and shouted “Is it hot enough?”
Rainey died inside that shower. He was found crumpled on the floor. When his body was pulled out, nurses said there were burns on 90 percent of his body. A nurse said his body temperature was too high to register with a thermometer. And his skin fell off at the touch.
But in an unconscionable decision, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office announced Friday that the four guards who oversaw what amounted to a medieval-era boiling will not be charged with a crime.
“The shower was itself neither dangerous nor unsafe,’’ the report says. “The evidence does not show that Rainey’s well-being was grossly disregarded by the correctional staff.’’
Rundle’s office announced the results of its investigation in a Friday afternoon news-dump, the kind that public officials typically only use to bury unflattering news or information. Rundle’s office would clearly like this case to vanish over the weekend — but the facts of the case are so inhumanely grotesque that the decision should haunt the office for eternity.
Rundle took over as Miami-Dade’s top prosecutor in the 1990s, after then-State Attorney Janet Reno left to join the Bill Clinton administration. She has remained the state attorney every since. In that time, she has never charged a Miami police officer for an on-duty shooting.
It’s important to note that all Rundle had to do to show that she cared was to charge the prison guards with a crime. It is up to a jury to assess guilt. Despite the fact that a man died in a shower, and that multiple witnesses said they saw burns on his body and heard screaming, Rundle didn’t think there was enough evidence to bring criminal charges.
Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown spoke to multiple witnesses, jail inmates, and staff members, who said the showers were routinely used to scald inmates who acted out or upset the guards. Brown led a 2015 investigative series into abuses at Miami prisons. That series led to lawsuits, firings, rule-changes, and legislative hearings. But Rundle hasn’t filed criminal charges.
The New Yorker magazine centered an entire investigation around Rainey’s death. The magazine detailed how a whistleblower who tried to speak out about the incident, Harriet Krzykowski, was bullied, harassed, and forced into therapy after trying to speak out about abuses at the jail.
Fernandez Rundle’s 72-page close-out memo leans heavily on an autopsy that has been roundly criticized by civil-rights advocates. The report claims Rainey was not found with burns when he died. Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Association, has said in the past that the autopsy, which was leaked to the press during the investigation, showed that a federal investigation was needed.
Rundle’s office, however, noted that one Miami-Dade County cop reported that nurses said Rainey’s body had “red areas” on it, and that his skin was, indeed, “slipping off” after being removed from the shower. Rundle’s memo said, however, that this could have instead been due to “body decomposition,” rather than burns.
“In response to specific questions by Detective Sanchez regarding burns, Dr. [Emma] Lew advised that Rainey did not sustain any obvious external injuries, and, particularly, that there were no thermal injuries (burns) of any kind on his body,” the report says. It then adds that from 2012 to 2014, no cause of death was determined.
This was complicated, however, by the fact that Rainey’s family members say they were pressured to rapidly cremate his body. If further evidence of a murder existed, it has long been burnt to ashes.
One witness quoted in the Herald and New Yorker pieces, Harold Hempstead, was an inmate serving time for felony robbery charges. Hempstead kept a diary and reported that he heard Rainey’s screams.
But Rundle’s Friday memo took great pains to disqualify Hempstead’s entire diary as innaccurate and unreliable. Multiple inmates told Rundle’s office that they heard screams, but the State Attorney claimed the accounts were “inconsistent” and could not be trusted.
“Accordingly and in conclusion,” Rundle wrote, “the facts and evidence in this case do not meet the required elements for the filing of any criminal charge.”
She then signed her name.
Jerry Iannelli is Miami New Times’ daily-news reporter. He graduated with honors from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he developed a reputation for pestering college officials until they cursed at him. He then earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.