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Darren Rainey and Katherine Fernandez Rundle
Darren Rainey and Katherine Fernandez Rundle
Photos by Miami-Dade Corrections/Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office

What Happened to the Outside Death Investigations in the Darren Rainey Case?

Three years ago, a federal judge overruled the objections of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office and ordered that skin-tissue samples from the body of Darren Rainey be released to three experts for further examination.

The ruling was a small victory in a lawsuit filed by the family of Rainey, a 50-year-old Florida prisoner diagnosed with schizophrenia who died in 2012 after guards placed him inside a piping-hot shower cell sometimes used to punish inmates.

The jarring photos of Rainey's corpse, which showed skin peeling off his body, seemed to many people clear evidence that he suffered a horrific death as a result of the officers' actions.

But Dr. Emma Lew, the county’s deputy chief medical examiner at the time, determined otherwise, ruling the death accidental. In her autopsy report, Lew, who is now director of the medical examiner department, said the peeling skin marks on Rainey's body were not burns but rather "skin slippage" caused by the warm, moist environment of the shower.

While three experts were allowed to review the skin samples Lew's office provided, the results of their 2017 examinations have never been made public. That may be because the civil case was settled six months later for $4.5 million.

The issue of the additional examinations resurfaced this summer in the race for Miami-Dade state attorney, in which Melba Pearson is challenging incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle. In 2017 Rundle cited Lew's report as the main reason she did not file criminal charges against the officers involved in Rainey's death.

Both Rundle and Pearson have mentioned the outside examinations during virtual campaign events leading up to the August 18 state attorney's election, including a Facebook Live with Luther Campbell and an online debate hosted by the Miami Herald .

The tissue samples were provided to Dr. Werner Spitz, a forensic pathologist hired by Rainey's family, and to Dr. Wayne K. Ross, a forensic pathologist hired by Oscar Marrero, the attorney for correctional officers Roland Clarke and Cornelius Thompson, who were named as defendants in the civil case. A third set of the samples went to an unknown expert retained by the attorney for Corizon Correctional Healthcare, the company that provided mental health care to the prison at the time.

Reached by New Times this week, Ross said he needed clearance from Marrero before agreeing to an interview. Marrero did not return phone messages.

It's unclear which expert Corizon chose to perform an examination. Gregg Toomey, the attorney who represented Corizon at the time, did not return a phone message from New Times.

Vicki Sarmiento, a California-based attorney who represented Rainey's family, told New Times she could not turn over Spitz's report owing to a confidentiality order. But she says Spitz — a renowned medical examiner who has been a part of a number of high-profile cases, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson — came to a conclusion "completely contrary" to Lew's, finding that Rainey had indeed been burned in the shower.

"There's no dispute that these were burns," Sarmiento says of the skin samples. "It's so clear-cut that it defies science that there could be any other finding."

The attorney also questions Lew's explanation that Rainey's prescribed medication, Haldol, could have contributed to his death by creating "a predisposition to sudden cardiac death" and causing his body to overheat in the shower.

"Haldol does not cause skin to fall off when you're in a hot shower," Sarmiento says. "Mr. Rainey had been on Haldol in the past, and he had obviously been in showers in the past. It does not cause skin to fall off like that in chunks. It doesn't cause skin to burn."

In recent interviews, Rundle has cited a finding in Lew's autopsy report that Rainey did not have burns on his feet, which she says casts doubt on the idea that he was standing in scalding water. But according to the Herald, witnesses said Rainey was wearing shoes in the shower — one shoe was even photographed in the shower stall shortly after his death.

After reviewing Spitz's work, Sarmiento says, she disagrees with the medical examiner's determination that the death was accidental, given that Rainey was "intentionally put in a situation" that led to his death.

"It would be our position that it was a homicide," she says.

Rundle's investigation should trouble Miami-Dade residents, she adds.

"I think to just turn a blind eye to what was so obvious to anybody shows from the State Attorney's Office a willingness to not examine and have an independent view of what was in plain sight," Sarmiento tells New Times. "I think it's reprehensible that the office didn't question this."

Likewise, she believes Rundle's failure to prosecute is indicative of a greater problem.

"It just sends the wrong message that, well, these horrible things can happen and as long as nobody is the wiser and we keep this under wraps, then there's no consequences and no change," Sarmiento says.

Spitz declined New Times' request for an interview. A woman who answered the phone at his office said the confidentiality order prevents him from commenting about the case.

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