Miami-Dade County Florida prosecutors announced on March 17th that they will not bring charges against four prison guards who held Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic African American man, in a hot shower for hours. The prisoner died several hours later.
Darren Rainey, 50, was imprisoned at the Dade Correctional Institution in 2012. Rainey was serving a two-year stint at the correctional facility for cocaine possession. On June 23 of that year, corrections officers Ronald Clarke, John Fan Fan, Cornelius Thompson, and Edwina Williams threw Rainey in a scalding hot shower and locked the door. Rainey begged and pleaded to be let out. According to the Miami New Times, he forcefully kicked the shower door and yelled ‘Please take me out! I can’t take it anymore!”. The officers then casually asked him ‘Is it hot enough?’ as they cruelly ignored his pleas.
Eventually, the officers no longer heard Rainey’s panicked voice echoing over the steady drip of the steaming shower. When the officers finally opened the door, a thick cloud of steam surrounded Rainey’s slumped body on the floor of the shower. Rainey was dead and disfigured from burns to 90% of his body. A nurse later said his body temperature was so high it couldn’t register on a thermometer. Rainey’s death immediately hit local and national newspapers. A narrative and debate surfaced concerning the need for prison reform as well as the poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
Fast forward to an announcement made by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle on Friday. The prosecutor formally stated that the four guards who oversaw the boiling will not be charged with a crime. A 72-page report issued by State Attorney’s office stated that Rainey died accidentally in part because of undiagnosed heart disease and suffered no burn injuries. Rundle added that the shower was ‘neither dangerous nor unsafe’ and that: ‘The evidence does not show that Rainey’s well-being was grossly disregarded by the correctional staff.’ In direct contradiction to reports at the time, the reports accepted that nurses said Rainey’s body had ‘red areas’ on it, and that his skin was ‘slipping off’, the memo said this could have been due to ‘body decomposition’ rather than burns. Ultimately, Rundle decided that there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges despite the man’s death and even though multiple witnesses stated that they saw the burns on his body.
Rundle has spoken out via Social Media regarding her decision, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney website posted a statement in the NEWS section called Darren Rainey FAQs. She posted a hotline number on twitter for the public to call should they wish to speak out.
I have established a hotline at 305-547-3300 to answer your concerns regarding the death of Darren Rainey.
— Kathy Rundle (@KathyFndzRundle) March 20, 2017
Prior to the announcement, many in the legal and journalist community suspected that the officers would be charged with felony manslaughter. When a homicide, the killing of a human being, does not meet the legal definition of murder, Florida state laws allow a prosecutor to consider a manslaughter charge (under Florida Statutes Section 782.02-782.36) The state establishes two types of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. While voluntary manslaughter describes an intentional act performed during a provocation or in the heat of passion, involuntary manslaughter does not require intent to kill or even intent to perform that act resulting in the victim’s death.
To establish involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must show that the defendant acted with “culpable negligence.” Florida statutes define culpable negligence as a disregard for human life while engaging in wanton or reckless behavior. The state may be able to prove involuntary manslaughter by showing the defendant’s recklessness or lack of care when handling a dangerous instrument or weapon, or while engaging in a range of other activities that could lead to death if performed recklessly. If charged the officers could have faced:
- Up to 15 years in prison
- Up to 15 years of probation
- Up to $10,000 in fines
Recently New York Daily News conducted an investigative report on the subject. Witnesses told the reporter that the showers were regularly used to scald inmates who acted out or upset the guards. Furthermore, the newspaper reported about a whistleblower who tried to speak out concerning the incident. This person was harassed and forced into therapy after warning authorities about abuses at the jail. The whole case became even more complicated by the fact that Rainey’s family allegedly were pressured to cremate his body quickly – so even if there was further evidence, it no longer exists. Attorney Milton Grimes of Los Angeles who represents the Rainey family said in a statement that the family is “disappointed and heartbroken” concerning the state’s decision. Grimes added, “This is not justice for Darren, for his family, nor for the mentally ill who have been subject to similar abuse and mistreatment.”
Although the officers were not criminally charged, the fact that the Rainey family have hired an attorney on their behalf could potentially mean the family will sue the state civilly. A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit that may be brought to court when the negligence or wrongful act of one party causes the death of another person. Florida Statutes section 678.18 states that when a person’s death “is caused by the wrongful act, negligence, default, or breach of contract” of another person or some other entity, the estate of the deceased person may bring a civil lawsuit in Florida’s courts, seeking a legal remedy for that death and the losses stemming from it.
There’s no doubt that the facts of this case are complicated. The state’s attorney threw out several eye witness reports from prisoners who stated that Rainey looked like “a boiled lobster” concluding that the statements were inconsistent and untrustworthy. Interestingly, the Florida prisons investigator who resigned after allegations of covering up abuses in the system recently accepted a position as chief of investigations for the Leon County Sherriff’s Office.
Meanwhile, Rainey’s family is left to pick up the pieces as they are still uncertain of what exactly caused the death of their troubled loved one. Although the criminal portion of this case is closed, a conversation about mental illness and prisoner treatment in correctional facilities will continue.