Arguably the biggest stain on Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's 24-year record involves the death of a mentally ill man. In 2012, witnesses claimed four prison guards at Dade Correctional Institution scalded schizophrenic inmate Darren Rainey to death inside a jerry-rigged prison shower as punishment for soiling himself. In March, Rundle received worldwide condemnation — and was the subject of multiple local protests — after she declined to charge the guards.
Mere months after that ordeal ended, the Florida Bar has now appointed Rundle to a special panel that will give advice on how to treat the mentally ill more humanely.
You read that right. After letting four people who oversaw the death of a mentally ill man walk, Rundle will give the state's lawyers and judges advice on how to best work with the mentally ill.
The bar decided to convene the panel at a meeting in Miami this past July 21. According to that meeting's chair, lawyer Renee Thompson, the 15-member panel will study the state's legal code and the American Bar Association's standards and recommend changes to help the state better serve those with mental illness.
“The vision is to transform Florida’s legal system into a national leader for effective and efficient adjudication of cases involving people with mental illnesses,” Thompson told the Florida Bar Journal in August.
Representatives for the Florida Bar said they could not immediately comment on Rundle's appointment due to the Rosh Hashanah holiday this week. A spokesperson for Rundle's office also could not immediately comment today.
But part of the "effective and efficient adjudication" of the mentally ill includes treating crimes committed against them seriously. And many critics thought Rundle failed to do so in the Rainey case. In fact, her hometown Miami-Dade County Democratic Party passed a no-confidence resolution asking her to resign earlier this year due to the Rainey case.
Rainey's mental illness is at the heart of the story. He was in prison for simple cocaine possession, likely because of addiction struggles tied to his illness. Multiple civil-liberties groups and disability-rights nonprofits condemned not only Rundle's decision but also the fact that Rainey was in prison in the first place: Howard Simon, the director of Florida's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a May 11 op-ed that Rainey should never have been incarcerated.
"From 2001 to 2010, Darren Rainey was arrested for possession of cocaine nine times," Simon wrote. "He wasn't a drug dealer. He wasn't a violent criminal. He was a drug addict."
Witnesses at the jail, including nurses and other inmates, said Rainey was thrown into a scalding-hot shower after he soiled himself and defecated all over his cell. Though Rundle and the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office claim that the water could not have been hot enough to kill Rainey and that there were no burns on his body when he died, independent medical examiners who spoke to the Miami Herald, as well as photographic evidence the Herald published, appear to refute that claim.
Moreover, independent legal experts claim Rundle herself botched the case: Her office initially closed the case without taking any action and reopened the case only after the Herald's Julie K. Brown highlighted repeated cases of similar torture and mistreatment inside Florida's prison system. Her series included other inmates who alleged they were scalded or burned with chemicals as punishment for acting out. In his May op-ed, the ACLU's Simon noted that even if Rundle could not charge the guards with an intentional crime such as murder, she could have chosen to charge them with crimes including culpable negligence. She opted not to.
Rundle can point to other work she's done to improve treatment of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system. Miami-Dade County previously sent the mentally ill to languish on the "Forgotten Floor" of the Miami-Dade County Jail, a mental-health ward on the ninth floor of the facility that multiple investigations labeled a nightmarish psychiatric ward where prisoners were routinely mistreated. An unacceptable number of inmates died, and the floor became a national symbol for the mistreatment of the mentally ill.
In 2000, Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman pushed the local government to create the Criminal Mental Health Project, a program that diverts the mentally ill out of prison and into psychiatric care. Rundle's office now works with Miami's 11th Judicial Circuit to operate misdemeanor and felony mental-health treatment courts, and the "Forgotten Floor" finally closed in 2014.
But the timing of Rundle's new seat on the Florida Bar's mental-health panel has upset many activists who fought for Rainey's family. Activists say they're upset that the appointment sends a message that Rundle is being rewarded for her treatment of the case.
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All three of the activists above spoke out against Rundle at a contentious May 30 Miami-Dade Democratic Party meeting, in which Rundle relitigated the Rainey case in front of the party's members. But the speech didn't work, and the party asked her to resign the next month. She has so far not honored the request.