Graphic photos stir doubts about Darren Rainey’s prison death

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The photographs of Darren Rainey’s body are difficult to look at: skin curling from nearly every part of his body, from the top of his nose to his ankles. Large swaths of exposed body tissue, some of it blood red, and other portions straw yellow. Skin blistering on portions of his face, his ears and his neck. Deep red tissue exposed on his chest, his back, a thigh and an arm. Yellow tissue exposed on his buttocks and left leg.

About the only portion of his body not affected are his feet.

Paramedic Alexander Lopez saw the injuries firsthand that evening, after Rainey collapsed and died in a shower in the mental health unit at Dade Correctional Institution on Jan. 23, 2012.

“[Patient] was found with second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of his body,’’ Lopez wrote, adding that prison staff told him that “inmate was found on shower floor with hot water running.’’

The autopsy report, which inexplicably took three years to be completed and another year to be released, was puzzling to Rainey’s relatives, who said they were pressured by prison officials to immediately have him cremated.

His death was an “accident,” Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Emma Lew concluded in December 2015. He died from “complications from schizophrenia, heart disease and confinement to a shower.’’

[Patient] was found with second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of his body.

Paramedic Alexander Lopez

But an examination of photographs, taken immediately after Rainey’s death and at an autopsy the following morning, raises questions about Lew’s findings. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said the autopsy formed the foundation of her decision not to charge anyone with criminal wrongdoing.

Fernández Rundle issued a final report on the case on March 17, announcing her decision not to file charges. She conducted the investigation after the Herald reported that the makeshift shower had been used by guards to torment prisoners who suffered from mental illnesses. Unlike other showers in the prison, it was rigged so that the temperature controls were in an adjacent room, inaccessible to inmates locked inside.

Inmates in the unit told the Herald—and later detectives — that Rainey had been placed in the shower by officer Roland Clarke after Rainey defecated on himself, and that other officers stood by as Rainey screamed and begged for help while banging on the shower door. He was found face up, in a pool of water, more than 90 minutes later.

Inmates and staff described how after Rainey was carried out of the shower, he was so red he looked like he had been “boiled’’ — and that his skin was peeling off his body “like fruit roll-ups.’’

Since Fernández Rundle announced there would be no charges, the Herald has obtained thousands of pages of reports, emails, testimony and photographs from the state attorney’s office, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department —which was the lead investigative agency.


Katherine Fernández Rundle, Miami-Dade state attorney


Sources also provided the Herald with postmortem photographs, which journalists shared with Drs. Michael Baden and John Marraccini, both forensic pathologists, for their review. Select photos are published with this story in print and online.

The Herald’s examination of Fernández Rundle’s 101-page report, which summarized a two-year investigation, identified numerous contradictions and omissions regarding both the autopsy findings and other evidence and statements used as the basis to clear the corrections officers.

Lew maintains that Rainey suffered no burns and that there was no trauma to his body, and no credible evidence that the shower had been excessively hot. Lew declined to be interviewed for this story, but did answer some — but not all — written questions submitted by the Herald.

She said she was confident from the beginning that the injuries Rainey suffered were not burns — so confident that she did not take more than one skin tissue sample. A careful examination of skin tissue samples is critical to determining the presence or absence of burns, Marraccini said.

Lew contends Rainey’s skin peeling, also known as sloughing, occurred after his death as part of postmortem decomposition.

“Postmortem [after-death] slippage of the skin was evident during the examination of the body just before autopsy,’’ she wrote. “The slippage was similar to that seen in other bodies.’’

Fernández Rundle said the absence of burns made it impossible to prove that a crime had been committed, since it meant the shower was not dangerously hot. She emphasized that “science” showed that Rainey did not die from the actions of the corrections officers.

However, Marraccini and Baden both told the Herald the photos indicate burns over a significant portion of Rainey’s body.


Dr. John Marraccini

Marraccini, former medical examiner in Palm Beach County, faulted the Miami-Dade medical examiner for not taking additional skin tissue samples, since it is important to look at skin tissue from the area that suffered the most damage.

The Herald asked Lew to indicate from where on Rainey’s anatomy she took the skin tissue sample. It was one of the questions she did not answer.

“Given that first responders are calling these burns, the prudent thing is to examine them thoroughly to see whether they are pre- or postmortem effects,’’ said Marraccini, adding that photographs shared by the Herald — particularly ones taken in the prison infirmary immediately after he died — raise suspicion.

“You have to assume from the start that these are burns until proven otherwise, not the other way around,’’ Marraccini said.


Dr. Michael Baden

Baden, who was on New York State’s prison medical review board for 40 years, said skin slippage is “hot water trauma” that can only be caused by prolonged exposure to elevated water temperature.

“I think he suffered thermal burns of his skin. They are not postmortem decomposition. These were heat effects. You don’t decompose in a facility right away. The decomposition takes time,’’ he said.

Lew maintains that the different shades of tissue on Rainey’s body — the deep red vs. the yellow — are the result of slippage that occurred after his death, but at different times.

Marraccini said while it could be true that some of the sloughing happened after Rainey’s death, the deep red tissue signifies thermal injuries.

Explained Baden: “The reddish area happens while the blood is coursing and the heart is beating. Once the heart stops, that doesn’t make the heat effect go away. So there was skin damage while he was alive and further skin damage after he was dead.’’

Marraccini also noted that one of the photographs appear to show bruising on Rainey’s right hand consistent with him banging on the door as some inmates have claimed in their interviews with detectives and the Herald. The state attorney report said investigators found no convincing evidence that Rainey was screaming or banging on the door, and Lew said she detected no bruise on Rainey’s right hand.

The county has refused to allow Marraccini to do an independent study of the skin tissue slide that Lew took from Rainey’s body. The family has requested that the slide not be released to the Herald. Relatives did not object to the Herald publishing the photos that accompany this story.

Lew said she considered all the evidence, and referred the Herald to her “classification of pending case’’ report, which lists everything she reviewed, including the testimony of a health and safety inspector who said the temperature reading in the shower two days later was 160 degrees.

In an interview, Fernández Rundle said she is confident in Lew’s work, so much so that she didn’t ask another medical examiner to review the autopsy despite the years-long delay in completing it.

Lew, who was deputy medical examiner at the time of Rainey’s death, said the case had been on hold awaiting further investigation by Miami-Dade police. Police have said they were waiting for Dr. Lew’s autopsy findings.

The dormant case was revived in April 2014, when the Herald began investigating the death of Rainey, a 50-year-old serving two years for a minor drug conviction, as well as other suspicious deaths at Dade Correctional Institution.

The Rainey family, which has brought a civil suit against the Florida Department of Corrections, believes that police and the medical examiner conspired with prison officials to cover up what happened.

“We are appalled that the state attorney did not look deeper into this case and see the criminality of the people who were involved,” said Milton Grimes, the family’s attorney, on March 17, the day the state attorney’s report was released.

Grimes, who declined to comment for this story, has suggested that police and state attorney investigators gave too much weight to corrections officers’ statements and not enough to the broader context — including evidence that the temperature of the rigged shower was a dangerous 160 degrees when turned on full hot — and that corrections officers had been abusing mentally ill prisoners for years.

Among other things, the Herald has found the following problems with the state attorney’s (SAO) review of Rainey’s death:

The SAO said a paramedic on the scene, Alexander Lopez, “noted that there were no signs of trauma on Rainey’s body…”

In fact, Lopez, who examined Rainey’s body, did not mention in his report if there were or weren’t signs of trauma. But he did write that Rainey “was found with second- and third-degree burns on approximately 30 percent of his body.”

The state attorney also failed to mention that Brittany McLaurin, an investigator with the medical examiner’s office, wrote in a report the day after Rainey’s death: “Visible trauma was noticed throughout the decedent’s body.’’

The SAO dismisses a finding by the prison health and safety inspector, Darlene Dixon, that the hot water in the shower tested at 160 degrees, far higher than is safe. Dixon took the reading two days after Rainey’s death. The state attorney said the reading was questionable for two reasons: Dixon used a meat thermometer and another staff member measured the water at 120 degrees earlier the same day.

In fact, the Herald has learned, Dixon not only told investigators that the shower tested at 160 degrees when on full-hot, but that she had previously put in work orders on multiple occasions asking that the unsafe situation be fixed. Detectives and the state attorney failed to explore or even mention that in the final report.

You have to assume from the start that these are burns until proven otherwise, not the other way around.

Dr. John Marraccini, former medical examiner in Palm Beach County

Previous tests that found similar unsafe conditions were taken with a digital thermometer, not a meat thermometer, sources told the Herald.

Furthermore, a meat thermometer, also known as a cooking thermometer, is an acceptable way to test water temperatures. Manufacturers suggest one way to determine the tool’s accuracy is by putting it in boiling water.

The SAO report incorrectly says that another staff member took a reading before Dixon that same Monday after Rainey’s death and that the full-hot temperature was 120 degrees. In fact, Dixon took her reading before the other staff member, the Herald has learned. But she didn’t send an email about the reading until later in the day after the hot water supply had been adjusted and the water retested, by which time it topped off at 120 degrees.

“Why in the official report does Dr. Lew discuss the temperature as being 120 degrees?” said Marraccini. “It doesn’t make any sense when you had a health and safety inspector say it was 160 and he lost so much skin. That skin didn’t come off from black magic.’’

Asked about the four-year time frame for releasing the autopsy, Lew replied that there have been 174 in-custody prison death cases since 2004 that have taken more than a year to investigate.

“We have not found any evidence of abuse in the cases that have been brought to us over the past several years,’’ she added.

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