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News & Reviews
The Miami-Dade medical examiner is refusing to allow an independent review of key portions of a controversial autopsy that led to the decision last month absolving four corrections officers of blame in the death of an inmate they locked in a hot shower for nearly two hours.
Records obtained by the Miami Herald — as well as two forensic pathologists who have looked at the autopsy report — have raised questions about the medical examiner’s finding that the inmate’s death was an accident.
Several witnesses, including the paramedic who saw his body immediately after his death, said that Darren Rainey had second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of his body; that he had suffered trauma, and that large swaths of his skin were peeling off his body. A prison inspector general report said 70 percent of Rainey’s body exhibited burns, including both arms, his shoulder, his left buttocks and his nose.
Records show that a prison captain who took the water temperature of the shower two days after Rainey’s death logged it as being 160 degrees — and she noted that it was so hot she couldn’t stand under the water.
There’s no evidence that Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Emma Lew, who conducted Rainey’s autopsy, asked anyone to test the water temperature that night. Rainey, an inmate with severe mental illness who apparently angered guards by rubbing human feces on himself, suffered no burns whatsoever and instead exhibited skin slippage — a condition in which chunks of skin peeled off his body — during efforts by staff to resuscitate him, Lew determined.
Rainey’s autopsy remained on hold for nearly three years, although its not clear why. The medical examiner asserted she was waiting for more tests, and Miami-Dade police said they were waiting for the medical examiner’s report. The Florida Department of Corrections also put its probe on hold, pending completion of the criminal investigation by Miami-Dade police.
It wasn’t until the Herald began asking questions about the case in April 2014 that police and the medical examiner closely examined Rainey’s death.
Lew’s findings have been a subject of intense interest since last year, when portions of the autopsy were leaked to the Miami Herald, including her conclusion that the inmate died of heart disease, schizophrenia and confinement in a shower.
The state’s investigative close-out memo stated there was no evidence that the water in the shower was hotter than normal. Rainey was locked inside the makeshift shower unit and the heat controls were in an adjacent closet, accessible to guards.
Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist 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.
Despite the controversy, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, in a recent interview, said there was no need to obtain a second opinion because she was confident in Lew, who has conducted hundreds of autopsies.
“Understandably, there are some misgivings,’’ Rundle said. “Some are looking at the skin slippage as the appearance of burns, but the preliminary observations were disputed by the medical examiner.’’
Rundle used the autopsy results as the basis for her decision not to bring charges against four corrections officers.
Another forensic pathologist, Dr. John Marraccini, reviewed the written autopsy report at the request of the Herald and had concerns. Last month, he offered to review the medical examiner’s entire file — including slides of Rainey’s skin tissue, a key piece of evidence — and issue an opinion. Marraccini, the former Palm Beach County medical examiner, has worked as a consultant and reviewed autopsies in the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office in the past.
After initially consenting to the review — and scheduling to have Marraccini to do it on a Saturday — the county sent the Herald a series of emails delaying the review. First, officials said the department’s lone histopathology technician, an expert in changes in tissue, was ill but indicated the review could take place later, including an examination of tissue slides. It was rescheduled for April 15. Then, four days before the reschedule review, a records clerk in the medical examiner’s office called the Herald to report another problem: An employee at the University of Miami who assists the medical examiner with preparing the slides was now ill.
At the time, the Herald was in contact with the Rainey family attorney, Milton Grimes, hoping to obtain permission to allow Marraccini to view the autopsy photographs, which are not a public record in Florida. Grimes said he was willing to allow the Herald to view the photographs, and even publish some of them, and was working on obtaining a notarized release from Rainey’s family.
As the Herald tried to arrange a new date for the review, the county attorney’s office sent another email to the Herald on Thursday, saying that, on further consideration, the slides were not considered a “record’’ at all, but rather human tissue and thus not subject to a public records request.
The Miami Herald’s attorney, Sanford Bohrer, disputed that in an email to the county.
“I think the public records law’s definitions clearly make these slides, which are not kept with or disposed with or buried with bodies but kept in files just like other documents, public records,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Assistant County Attorney Christopher A. Angell said Rainey’s relatives had contacted Miami-Dade and that they would not consent to the review of the slides.
The slides are samples of skin tissue that would show whether Rainey had suffered burns, Marraccini said.
“When someone has a burn, usually it’s not just the skin falling off — there is a border in the area where the skin is extra red and you look for an ambient pattern to see whether there is a burn. Really, this is a case that comes down to the microscopic tissue samples,” said Marraccini, who agreed to do the review at the Herald’s request as a public service.
Baden, who has reviewed the written autopsy report, said Lew’s conclusion that Rainey’s skin slippage happened post-mortem is questionable.
“From all I’ve seen and all I’ve read, this was due to scalding hot water. You don’t get skin slippage in a few hours,” Baden said. Witnesses, including prison nurses, reported the slippage immediately after Rainey’s body was found.
Grimes, who is based in California, has not responded to repeated emails, texts and phone calls from the Herald. He is representing Rainey’s family in a pending civil lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections.
Rainey, 50, died on June 23, 2012, at Dade Correctional Institution, near Homestead. He was serving a less than two-year term for drug possession and was a few months from release. Born and raised in Tampa, he had been housed in the prison’s mental health ward, or transitional care unit, at the time of his death.
At least six other inmates told investigators that they, like Rainey, had been forced to endure painfully hot showers by guards who purportedly used it to quiet and sometimes punish unruly inmates in the TCU.
Rundle closed her case on March 17 without any charges being filed. A federal civil rights investigation is ongoing.