Eight years ago today, Florida prison guards locked 50-year-old Darren Rainey inside a shower room, set the water temperature to scalding-hot, and turned it on. Roughly two hours later, Rainey collapsed and die inside that 3-by-8.5-foot room. After a five-year investigation, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle chose to not charge any of the corrections officers with a crime.
Rundle's decision to clear the officers is largely regarded as one of the biggest stains on her 27-year career as Miami-Dade County's top prosecutor. Now, as protests mount over the lack of police accountability in America, the Rainey case is receiving renewed attention ahead of Miami-Dade's August 18 election, in which voters will choose to re-elect Rundle for an eighth term or install her progressive challenger, Melba Pearson, a former prosecutor in Rundle's office who resigned her post as deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in order to run against her former boss.
The details of Rainey's death at the Dade Correctional Institution, a state prison, were sufficiently horrifying to gain national attention. On the night of June 23, 2012, corrections officers took Rainey into the shower room and cranked the water up to 180 degrees: hot enough to steep tea or cook noodles. Other inmates reported hearing him yell, "Please take me out!" while the guards allegedly laughed and asked Rainey, "Is it hot enough?"
Reports say Rainey, who had schizophrenia and was serving a two-year sentence for cocaine possession, was being punished for defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up.
Although Rainey's body was found in gruesome condition — a nurse said burns covered 90 percent of his body and that his temperature was too high to register on a thermometer — Emma Lew, the Miami-Dade medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Rainey, concluded that the skin peeling was due to "body decomposition" and not burning.
Based largely on Lew's report, in March 2017 Rundle and her team of prosecutors opted not to press criminal charges against the four guards who were responsible: Sgt. John Fan Fan and Officers Cornelius Thompson, Roland Clarke, and Edwina Williams.
Rainey's torturous death was brought to light by Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown, who has called the official investigation a "cover-up." But this week, the killing is resurfacing on social media.
The Names You Don't Know project, created by former New Times reporter Jess Swanson to document local instances of police brutality, highlighted the case in an Instagram post yesterday. And this morning, documentarian and activist Billy Corben posted a video on Twitter calling attention to the fact that Rundle did not prosecute the officers in the case. (Warning: The images in the video are extremely graphic.)
8 years ago today, a mentally ill man #DarrenRainey was locked in a scalding hot shower by Miami-Dade prison guards and boiled to death. Prosecutor @KathyFndzRundle covered up his murder. Vote Melba Pearson for Miami-Dade State Attorney: https://t.co/oKWnCx81Nh #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/42nPzk4II4— Billy Corben (@BillyCorben) June 23, 2020
Although Corben tagged the beginning of his video with a warning about the graphic imagery, he says he felt that it's important for people to see with their own eyes what happened to Darren Rainey.
"Is it provocative? Yes. Is it indispensable? Yes," Corben says. "When someone is boiled to death by people who are supposed to protect and serve and that is covered up by people who are supposed to uphold the law, I don't know how else to illustrate that to someone, other than to show what that looks like."
Corben says he and a team of volunteers produced the video on their own dime and volition, not in coordination with Pearson's campaign. He calls the August vote "the most consequential election in our history."
"As I travel the world and people ask me, 'Why is Miami so crazy?' I tell them it's three words: Katherine Fernandez Rundle," Corben elaborates. "The reason that political corruption and police misconduct flourish here is because our top cop refuses to do anything about it and hold anyone accountable for it. Kathy Fernandez Rundle is our greatest impediment to progress in this county."
At least three of the officers who were investigated in Rainey's death continued their careers in law enforcement. John Fan Fan (sometimes spelled Fanfan) worked for the Florida Department of Corrections through October of 2018. According to the Herald, Thompson took a job in the federal prison system.
Clarke, meanwhile, was hired in 2014 by the Miami Gardens Police Department, where he was twice investigated for having sex while on duty. Tania Francois, a spokesperson for the City of Miami Gardens, says that after going through due process, Clarke was terminated from the police department this past Thursday.
Despite the public attention, Rainey's relatives have said little publicly about his grisly death. The family filed a civil-rights lawsuit and received a $4.5 million settlement from the state in 2018.
Corben believes the best way to honor Rainey's life is to go to the polls in August.
"All you can hope is that people like Darren Rainey didn't die for nothing," the filmmaker says. "That's what happens when we re-elect a Kathy Rundle: We basically spit on the grave and spit in the face of the family members and survivors of all these people who died in Miami-Dade and Kathy Rundle did nothing about it."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.