Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami's Top Prosecutor, Is a Disgrace

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami's Top Prosecutor, Is a Disgrace
Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office
Miami-Dade County has had the same prosecutor since Bill Clinton was president. Beginning in 1993, through the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump eras, she has not once charged a police officer for an on-duty killing.

What Katherine Fernandez Rundle, age 67, has done instead is make decades' worth of excuses for public officials accused of corruption and murder. When a Miami-Dade cop tasered a man to death, the officer wasn't charged. When a Miami-Dade cop was fired for shooting an unarmed black man, the officer walked free and was later rehired. When a group of cops lured robbers into the Redland and shot them on video, Rundle declined to charge the officers.

But now, in neglecting to charge the four prison guards who threw a black, schizophrenic inmate, Darren Rainey, into a scalding-hot shower for two hours until he died, Rundle has reached an all-time low.

Rundle's office announced its decision not to pursue charges in Rainey's case late Friday afternoon. The news dump was clearly designed to bury the story for the weekend and shield her from criticism. She should not be shielded. The facts of Rainey's case are grotesque: He was thrown into a 180-degree shower for two hours, and inmates said they heard him screaming that the water was too hot.

Rainey was found dead, crumpled in a heap on the floor of the shower. Nurses who were interviewed at the time said that they saw red burns on his body and that Rainey's skin was peeling off.

Rundle, however, didn't believe testimony from nurses and inmates — and instead declined to bring charges against the four implicated guards. Citing an autopsy report (which claimed Rainey did not have burns on his body when he died) that has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, Rundle announced Friday that the four state employees who forced a defenseless prisoner into a scalding shower until he died should go free.

The decision is just the latest in a long string of awful decisions by Rundle. Her office has made a living letting cops and county officials slide for questionable or downright criminal conduct. For one, the Miami Herald's 2015 investigation into state prisons, called "Cruel and Unusual," documented multiple cases in which inmates around the state were tortured, scalded with hot water or chemicals, and literally gassed to death. Though that series led to rule changes and firings, Rundle has not charged any prison guards involved in any prison-guard cases.

And that's just the jails. Here is a brief, and by no means comprehensive, list of recent cases in which Rundle has let police officers off easy: Granted, between 1989 and 2015, not a single Florida cop who had killed anyone while on duty had been charged with a crime. (Broward County Sheriff's Dep. Peter Peraza was accused in 2015 of manslaughter for admittedly killing 33-year-old Jermaine McBean, a computer engineer who was holding an unloaded air rifle and wearing earbuds. Peraza was allowed to use the state's deeply controversial "Stand Your Ground" law to walk free.) But that does not excuse Rundle's decision to effectively let corrupt or murderous city and county employees operate with impunity for three decades.

It's not just cops and prison guards: Rundle's office also bungled an investigation into blatantly corrupt former Miami congressman David Rivera, who was caught blowing more than $65,000 in campaign funds on personal items such as dental bills, pet care, and travel costs for his then-girlfriend. Rivera was once labeled the single most corrupt member of U.S. Congress, but Rundle's office claimed he somehow justified all the money he had spent because he was "continuously campaigning for more than a decade." Oh, and the State Attorney's Office claimed it was hampered by a two-year statute of limitations.

So how has such an obviously inept and/or uncaring prosecutor kept a job for decades? By flying under the radar. In most big cities, the state or district attorney is constantly in the media — New York City tabloids devote entire stories to Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr.'s Twitter photos, for example. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is the target of constant journalistic gossip and public scandal: Multiple members of DA Seth Williams' office were implicated in a porn-sharing scandal, and then Williams himself declined to run for reelection after getting caught taking unreported gifts. Williams had formerly been the sort of guy who gave vanity interviews to local city magazines for fun.

Nationally, prosecutors hold more power than judges. Prosecutors decide whether to accuse people of crimes and which charges will be leveled in court; judges simply rule on the decisions prosecutors make. A 2016 Fusion investigation found that the nation's state and district attorneys are disproportionately white, disproportionately male, and out of touch with the general public.

In Miami, however, the media rarely finds an excuse to print Rundle's name unless she's holding a news conference. The city's media outlets — New Times included — must do a better job of keeping constant pressure on Rundle for a series of lazy, unforced blunders and outright disgusting prosecutorial missteps.

Rundle has run virtually unopposed in each of her last three elections. (She has faced challenges from write-in candidates, but those barely count. Somehow, Miami's Police Benevolent Association has found reasons to oppose her more than once.) Added media pressure would turn the race for county prosecutor into the spectacle it ought to be. Until then, cops in Miami-Dade will continue to operate knowing full well they can kill people and get away with it.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.