When State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office decided this past March not to charge four prison guards who oversaw the death of Darren Rainey — a black, schizophrenic inmate scalded to death inside a locked shower — she announced the move in a late-Friday news dump without a press conference. But the decision caused national outrage, with critics noting that in her 24 years in office, Rundle has never charged a guard or cop for an on-duty death.
Last night at the South Florida AFL-CIO in Miami Springs, Rundle finally took questions from the public about the case — and she heard widespread anger over her decision. An energetic crowd peppered her with questions before a local Democratic Party meeting debating whether to demand her resignation. In the end, despite a majority in the room who backed the move, the symbolic resolution failed because not enough party members had attended to reach a quorum.
During an hourlong presentation, Rundle and a team of her associates, including Assistant State Attorneys Kathleen Hoague, Don Horn, and Jose Arrojo, argued that their office made the right decision by declining to prosecute the four officers who oversaw Rainey's death.
"There are things called accidents," Rundle said at the front of the low-ceilinged, windowless room. "There is human error."
A voting quorum of party members did not attend last night, which meant the party itself could not formally adopt any measures. The statement would have been nonbinding and would not have forced Rundle to do anything — and the party's inability to pass a simple, symbolic resolution frustrated many of the people in attendance. The party will have to take the measure up at a later meeting. The full Democratic Executive Committee does not meet again until mid-June.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Rundle's assistant state attorneys spoke to at least three sub-bodies of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Two attendees at those meetings told New Times that Rundle's team disparaged the media, with the exception of one newspaper. The Miami Herald's Julie Brown, who broke many of the stories alleging abuse against Rainey, was sitting near the front of the room. Rundle instead praised the Herald's reporting and thanked the paper for keeping the prison system accountable.
(The state Democratic Party chair, Stephen Bittel; and the state communications director, Johanna Cervone, were also in attendance last night.)
But the attorneys did not win over the crowd. As Rundle spoke, a solid quarter of the Democratic Party attendees held up signs that read, "Resign," "Black Lives Matter," or "Justice for Darren Rainey," among other slogans. Rundle repeatedly talked down to the audience, whose members often responded with laughter, jeers, and hisses. At one point, Rundle called the public's concern about the case a "mob mentality."
Rundle's report claims Rainey died from an accidental heart attack due to being confined in the shower. Rundle and her assistants repeatedly claimed the prison guards who oversaw Rainey on a psychiatric floor for six weeks did not know he had schizophrenia. The crowd laughed whenever Rundle's team tried to drive home the point.
In fact, a Florida Department of Corrections psychiatric employee was in the audience and flatly called Rundle's claims nonsense. She said the prison employees would have absolutely known about Rainey's condition after a single shift, let alone after six weeks.
"He was on a psych floor!" she shouted at Rundle and Hoague.
In the months since Rundle's closeout memo and investigative report have been released, multiple independent medical examiners have poked holes in the prosecutors' report, which the Herald said was sloppily produced. Last night, Rundle and her team did not address any of those concerns specifically and instead stuck to the same script they've been pushing since they reached their decision. Rundle's office held steadfast to the claims of county Medical Examiner Emma Lew, who claimed that Rainey's body was not burned in the shower and that the large patches of red skin seen on Rainey's corpse were instead "skin slippage," a natural phase of body decomposition.
Multiple medical examiners who reviewed the case file pro bono for the Herald have cast serious doubt on Lew's conclusions.
Last night, Hoague enlarged a photo of a mutilated arm in an attempt to explain what "skin slippage" was. But she did not explain whose arm the photograph showed or the manner in which the person died. After showing the crowd the photo for less than a minute, she immediately flipped to photos of Rainey's body, which had what looked to be a red burns covering the chest. Hoague said repeatedly that the "burn" was actually skin slippage, something the crowd did not take kindly to.
"What I saw there were second- or almost third-degree burns," one woman, who identified herself as a medical doctor, said during the question-and-answer session. "When you tell me that is not a burn, that is a burn."
During her opening speech, which lasted roughly half an hour, Rundle also pushed back at accusations that her office is soft on police officers. She pointed to the hundreds of cops her office has prosecuted for lower-level crimes such as larceny or identity theft. When a party member angrily brought up the fact that her office has never charged an on-duty officer for killing someone, Rundle offered no response.
Another commenter said Rundle's office had committed 24 years of "intellectual" negligence by declining to prosecute the scores of on-duty officers who've wrongly killed civilians. Many speakers, including local journalist and gadfly Grant Stern, asked why Rundle has never lobbied the state Legislature to make it easier for prosecutors to hold local cops accountable.
After the presentation ended, Rundle herself left the room — a move that upset many attendees. (Attorneys Jose Arrojo and Don Horn remained.) Party member and local criminal justice lawyer Erica Selig then read from her proposed resolution asking Rundle to resign. She brought up the fact that the U.S Department of Justice's civil rights division has had to step in twice, once under George W. Bush and once under Barack Obama, to clean up police abuses.
Likewise, the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus read its own resolution criticizing Rundle for ignoring the black community's concerns about police-involved killings and use of force. State Rep. Roy Hardemon also called for Rundle to lose her job, stating he's seen her office "prosecute a paperclip" when it comes to civilians but make all sorts of excuses when it comes to state employees.
At the end of the night, Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chair Juan Cuba held an informal voice vote to see how many members would have backed a measure asking Rundle to step down. The "yea"s won by a wide margin.