by David M. Reutter
Organizers of the Smart on Crime Innovations conference – an annual gathering of community leaders, elected officials, organizers, researchers, journalists and lawyers aimed at reforming the criminal justice system – tweeted an apology for allowing Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to speak at the event, held in New York City on September 24, 2019.
The prosecutor, a Democrat, drew criticism on social media after joining a panel on how the justice system deals with people with disabilities, due to her controversial refusal to charge Florida prison guards in connection with the June 23, 2012 death of mentally ill prisoner Darren Rainey.
As previously reported in PLN, Rainey, a 50-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia, died after guards locked him in a hot shower at the Dade Correctional Institution as punishment for smearing himself with feces. Other prisoners said Rainey screamed for two hours while he endured heat so intense that it stripped off much of his outer layer of skin. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.59; Feb. 2016, p.1, 14]. Rainey was serving a sentence for cocaine possession.
Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Emma Lew ruled that Rainey’s death was an accident resulting from complications due to his mental illness and a heart condition, as well as “confinement in a shower.” But a Miami Herald investigation that detailed several incidents of torture in Florida prisons, including Rainey’s, cast doubt on Lew’s findings.
The Medical Examiner had found no evidence of burns on Rainey’s body. But the investigation uncovered photographs that other doctors said showed burns on Rainey’s back and chest, with skin peeling off large parts of his body. Several independent medical examiners then cast serious doubts on Lew’s findings – and on the refusal of Fernandez Rundle to bring criminal charges – saying that while a manslaughter charge might have been a reach, charges of culpable negligence may have been feasible.
As a result, Fernandez Rundle reopened her office’s investigation into Rainey’s death in 2014. But in June 2017, at the conclusion of that review, she still declined to prosecute the prison guards responsible for placing Rainey in the shower, sparking outrage. The local Democratic party passed a non-binding resolution calling for her resignation; however, Fernandez Rundle insisted that the forensic pathologist’s report made the case “unprosecutable.”
Rather than speak about Rainey’s death at the Smart on Crime Innovations conference, Fernandez Rundle discussed her office’s prosecution of North Miami police officer Jonathan Aledda for firing shots at a severely autistic man who was holding a small toy truck (hitting the man’s caretaker), as well as a civil citation program for juveniles in the Miami-Dade school system and programs to keep the mentally ill out of local jails.
With nearly 2.8 million residents, Miami-Dade is the seventh largest county in the U.S. Fernandez Rundle has been its top prosecutor since 1993, after she was elected to replace Janet Reno, who left to serve as U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton administration.
A 2017 investigation by the Miami New Times found that during her entire tenure – then totaling 24 years – Fernandez Rundle had never brought homicide charges against an on-duty law enforcement officer despite “scores” of killings in which police might have been culpable.
The investigation also found that the three years the prosecutor’s office had dragged out its inquiry into Rainey’s death was not an unusually long time, though it delayed the time that families were forced to wait before they could file civil actions seeking restitution from law enforcement departments for the wrongful deaths of their loved ones.
In a September 26, 2019 apology tweeted from the Center for American Progress, which hosted the conference in association with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, organizers said they had not “properly vetted” a panel guest and should not have asked that person to speak “on such an important topic.” The tweet did not mention Fernandez Rundle by name, but a spokeswoman confirmed it was referring to the prosecutor.
“As the organizer of this event, we take full responsibility and offer no excuses. We apologize to the disability justice community and to the justice reform community for causing harm,” the conference organizers stated.
But Fernandez Rundle, who is seeking reelection in 2020, said as far as she was aware, her presentation at the conference had been “well received.”
“Everybody was happy,” she said. “The organizers thanked me.”
Sources: Miami Herald, miaminewtimes.com
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