Americans With Mental Illnesses: A Different Standard Of Justice? No Charges Filed In Alleged Scalding Death

Prisoner dies in shower, but no evidence of foul play. Huh?

(4-9-18) Who is telling the truth about the alleged scalding death of a Florida inmate with schizophrenia – a state prosecutor or two investigative reporters?

On June 23, 2012, Darren Rainey, who was serving time for cocaine possession, was placed in a prison shower at the Dade Correctional Institution. According to news reports, the water was turned up to 180 degrees — hot enough to steep tea or cook ramen noodles. He was allegedly being punished by four correctional officers who kept him in the shower two full hours. Rainey was heard screaming, “Please take me out! I can’t take it anymore!” and kicking the shower door.

Inmates said prison guards laughed at Rainey and shouted, “Is it hot enough?”

Rainey died inside that shower. He was found crumpled on the floor. When his body was pulled out, nurses said burns covered 90 percent of his body. A nurse said his body temperature was too high to register with a thermometer. And his skin fell off at the touch.

That how the horrific event was first described by the Miami Herald‘s Julie K. Brown, who won a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious prizes, for her investigative work. Her account was collaborated by Eyal Press in a lengthy piece published in The New Yorker. Florida Department of Corrections emails discussing how to describe the death were discovered later, according to The Miami New Times. And prison counselor Harriet Krzykowski gave the New Yorker other damning evidence that seemed to confirm that Rainey had been brutally murdered — and that she had been pressured to cover up evidence.

Late last month, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced on a Friday afternoon that no charges would be filed because “the shower was itself neither dangerous nor unsafe…and the evidence does not show that Rainey’s well-being was grossly disregarded by the correctional staff.’’

News reports quoted Rundle saying, “Nobody can condone someone being thrown into a hot shower and killed. We read the same thing everyone else did, but it wasn’t until we really investigated that we learned that is not what happened.”

Here is what The News Times reported about Rundle’s decision.

“Rundle and her chief assistants claimed the published “narrative” was false based on video in the prison and a re-creation of events, as well as public records. “We have to rely on the science in the case,” Rundle said. “The question for us is whether the actions that we could prove constituted manslaughter or murder.”

Four points in particular would have made the case difficult to prove, Rundle and her assistants said. Though many reports – including one published by New Times — alleged Rainey was burned to death, that was not confirmed in the coroner’s findings, according to the prosecutor.

Though the autopsy report said that there were red areas on Rainey’s chest and extremities and that his skin was “coming off,” there were no burns on his body, according to that document. (The autopsy has been questioned by a New York State coroner, who says the skin slippage could only have been caused by scalding water.)

Then there was the shower. It was a jerry-rigged nozzle in a nine-by-three-foot room. The prosecutors claimed that even if the water were exceedingly hot, Rainey could have stepped out of the way.

Finally, there was the temperature of Rainey’s body. Several reports have said his body was “too high to register with a thermometer.” The prosecutors, though, said it was measured at 102 degrees after his death, before fire-rescue arrived.

“This doesn’t relate to medieval scalding,” Rundle’s staff noted. “Unless the guards were in there holding him under the stream, it would have been impossible for him to get burned.” They added: “The burden of proof for this is very high. We cannot prove a crime to a reasonable doubt. We cannot prove murder or manslaughter.” 

Playing armchair quarterback always is difficult especially from a distance.

But a string of cases suggest that when it comes to persons with mental illnesses, well, a different standard applies and that standard often appears to have little to do with justice being blind.

In Virginia, Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old African American who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was arrested in April 2015 for stealing $5.05 worth of candy and soda from a convenience store. He was transferred to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in May, where he was found dead in his cell three months later. The medical examiner ruled he died from a heart condition, exacerbated by “wasting syndrome,” or extreme weight loss.

Translated: he literary was starved to death while waiting to be sent to a state hospital. (His paperwork at the state hospital was found six days after he died in a desk drawer.)

What happened?

The jail investigated itself, said it had done nothing wrong, and much to their shame – state officials only showed an interest in the case after investigative reporters started digging into Mitchell’s death. Those officials later either claimed they had no jurisdiction or bungled their probes. ( The Virginia legislature ousted the State Inspector General because of her inept actions. Unfortunately, then Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring escaped reprimands after crying crocodile tears.)  Pressure from civil rights groups and mental health organizations finally prompted the U.S. Justice Department to announce it would investigate. Unfortunately, nothing has been heard from that federal agency since.

Here is how Mitchell’s death was described in a news story about the lawsuit that his family filed.

The lawsuit is the most detailed account yet of the hell Mitchell’s family says he saw behind bars. Court papers say guards left Mitchell in the freezing cell while gradually phasing out his supplies of food, water and medications. He slept naked night after night on a metal sheet, lost up to 50 pounds, smeared feces on the wall and saw his feet and legs swelling.

“Many times following the abuse, Mitchell could be heard crying from his cell,” the suit says.

Other inmates became so concerned for his well-being that they begged officers to treat him, the suit says. But several guards dismissed the concerns, saying Mitchell’s anguish was no bother “as long as he does not die on my watch,” the suit says.

The pending suit names 31 defendants, including jail administrators, guards and state mental health officials, and demands a trial for Mitchell’s death. Lawyers for the defendants have not commented on the case, citing the pending litigation.

Even when these cases are investigated and prosecuted, getting convictions proves difficult.

Consider the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a 37 year-old homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia, who lived on the streets of Fullerton, California. He was beaten unconscious by members of the Fullerton Police Department, on July 5, 2011 for not following a command. An autopsy showed the bones in his face were broken and he choked on his own blood after police compressed his thorax, making it impossible for him to breath.

On security video of the incident, one officer could be heard saying, “Now you see my fists?” while slipping on a pair of latex gloves.

“Yeah, what about them?” Thomas responded.

“They are getting ready to fuck you up.”

That video and a photo of Thomas’s face led to community protests. Finally, prosecutors charged one officer with second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter.  Two others were charged with one count of felony involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive force. 

Incredibly, jurors found two of the officers not guilty. After that, prosecutors dropped their third case. An attorney for one told reporters that the police officers were “simply doing their jobs.”

Watch the video and ask yourself if this is how you would want police in your community to do their jobs?

The city eventually paid the family $4.9 million rather than face the embarrassment of a civil trial. 

Which brings me back to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s decision to not prosecute anyone involved in the alleged scalding death.

Here are some undeniable facts. A prisoner was found dead in a shower stall. There was no evidence that he harmed himself. The officers in charge of him were responsible for his safety.

Who should be held accountable for this man’s death?

Apparently, it is the individual with mental illness who always is to blame – and that is outrageous.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.