Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Medical examiners and cover-ups


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Medical examiners and cover-ups

  • Baltimore’s ‘eye in the sky’ plane is back with a new pitch: surveil the police

  • An execution scheduled in South Dakota today makes a mockery of constitutional protections

  • A sheriff blocks get-out-the-vote efforts

  • Prison Legal News seeks Supreme Court review of Florida’s ban

  • Detroit police seized cars last year from nearly 400 people who weren’t charged with crimes

In the Spotlight

Medical examiners and cover-ups

In 2012, Darren Rainey died a gruesome death at the hands of Florida state corrections officers. Rainey, who was incarcerated at Dade Correctional Institution and had schizophrenia, was forced into a scalding hot shower after he defecated in his cell. In the years after Rainey’s death, after another incarcerated person inside fought to tell the story and the Miami Herald battled to unearth it, it became known that guards at Dade Correctional used dangerously hot showers, with the temperature controls outside the locked door, as a form of control against people with mental illness. That day, a guard locked Rainey in a blistering hot shower and walked away. When the guard returned two hours later, Rainey was unconscious on the floor. In 2014, another man incarcerated at the prison told the Miami Herald that he heard Rainey’s screams and several guards’ taunts, and that when he was ordered to clean up the shower cell he discovered strips of Rainey’s skin on the floor. [Julie K. Brown / Miami Herald]

Three years after Rainey’s death, the medical examiner, Dr. Emma Lew, concluded that Rainey’s death was an “accident” and he had died from “complications from schizophrenia, heart disease and confinement to a shower.’’ Lew also said she saw no burns and no evidence of trauma on Rainey’s body—conclusions that were in direct contradiction to the photographs of Rainey’s body, the recorded observations of others who saw Rainey’s body the night he died, and the opinions of other experts. The state’s attorney, when explaining her decision not to bring charges in the case, later said the autopsy formed the foundation of her decision. Her office’s report summarizing the investigation cited the absence of burns as making it impossible to prove that a crime had been committed, as it meant the shower was not dangerously hot. The state’s attorney also, according to the Herald, “emphasized that ‘science’ showed that Rainey did not die from the actions of the corrections officers.” [Julie K. Brown / Miami Herald]

When the Miami Herald reviewed the state’s attorney report it “identified numerous contradictions and omissions regarding both the autopsy findings and other evidence and statements used as the basis to clear the corrections officers.” One expert the paper consulted pointed to Lew’s failure to examine more than one skin tissue sample. “You have to assume from the start that these are burns until proven otherwise, not the other way around,” he said, pointing to the first responders’ description of burns on Rainey’s body.   [Julie K. Brown / Miami Herald]

Last week, the Miami New Times reported that a review of Lew’s personnel file shows that in the years since Rainey’s death and her findings exonerating the prison staff, Lew received a promotion, an award for which the state’s attorney recommended her, and a raise. Four months after she completed Darren Rainey’s autopsy report, she was appointed interim director of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department. Lew’s willingness to overlook the signs of Rainey’s killing certainly didn’t hinder, and may have helped, her continued professional advancement. [Meg O’Connor / Miami New Times]

Two years ago, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising was an occasion to remember a very different set of actions by a medical examiner. In 1971, after the violent retaking of Attica by state troopers that resulted in 40 people dead, 10 of them hostages, Dr. John Edland, the chief medical examiner of Monroe County, New York, performed the autopsies. Rumors spread by local officials and law enforcement alleged that incarcerated people had murdered the dead. But what Edland discovered was that they died from gunshot wounds, which could only have been inflicted by the state troopers since those involved in the uprising had no guns. Edland’s findings made it impossible to ignore that the deaths had come at the hands of the state troopers. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Edland, a registered Republican who had voted for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, knew that his findings might be buried. He called a news conference and contacted local Black clergy to attend with him. As he anticipated, many refused to accept Edland’s autopsy results. He was vilified across the state and became the target of a harassment campaign that included threats of violence against him and his family. [Gary Craig / Democrat and Chronicle]

Edland’s role in unmasking the events at Attica showed how a cover-up would have required the complicity of everyone involved. By refusing to be complicit, he exposed the truth about what happened. But it is still rare to see medical examiners expose violence committed by corrections officers. As Radley Balko of the Washington Post wrote, “In recent years, we’ve seen example after example of forensic experts too willing to compromise their ethics in the face of pressure from police and prosecutors.”

Stories From The Appeal

Persistent Surveillance Systems

Baltimore’s ‘Eye in the Sky’ Plane Is Back With a New Pitch: Surveil the Police. Dismal police accountability has made communities vulnerable to private vendors. [Brandon Soderberg and Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

An execution scheduled in South Dakota today makes a mockery of constitutional protections: When Rodney Berget was 9 years old, a psychologist evaluated him and assigned him an IQ score of 90. “This boy appears to be quite immature and to be suffering from borderline mental retardation.” the psychologist wrote. Decades after that evaluation, South Dakota plans to execute Rodney Berget today at 1:30 p.m. local time despite substantial evidence of intellectual disability that should make him ineligible for the death penalty under the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. Much of the information about Berget’s disability was available to his trial attorney but little of it was followed up on or presented to the sentencing jury in 2012. Berget’s case “reveals a disturbing breakdown in the constitutional protections that are supposed to be in place for people facing the death penalty,” writes Liliana Segura. Berget’s own brother was one of three other people who have been executed by South Dakota in recent decades—like Berget, he dropped his appeals, “volunteering” for execution.  Social workers interviewed for Berget’s case described a childhood home marked by alcoholism and physical abuse. [Liliana Segura / The Intercept]

A sheriff blocks get-out-the-vote efforts: Approximately 6,000 people locked up in the Orange County jail are estimated to be eligible to vote. Volunteers with the ACLU of Southern California have been trying to register them but the sheriff’s office, led by Sandra Hutchens, has made their work harder. Volunteers cannot enter the jail to talk about voting. Instead, HuffPost reports, they must wait across the street and approach people after they’re released to ask them to register. In California, people with felony convictions can vote as long as they are not currently incarcerated, on parole, or in jail on a parole violation. People in jail who are eligible to vote can vote by mail. The restriction Orange County is placing on get out the vote efforts is not the norm—”[j]ust north of Orange County, the ACLU has been allowed inside the Los Angeles County jail to register inmates. They estimate they’ve registered about 4,000 people there.”  [Sam Levine / HuffPost] See also The Appeal: Political Report looks at what’s at stake in the Orange County sheriff’s race this year. After a tenure marked by hostility to the state sanctuary law and by cooperation with ICE, Sheriff Hutchens is not seeking re-election.

Prison Legal News seeks Supreme Court review of Florida’s ban: Prison Legal News, an award-winning publication for incarcerated people, has been banned by the Florida prisons department and is seeking review by the Supreme Court after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban. PLN has many friends in its First Amendment fight—over 100 groups and individuals have signed on to 8 amicus briefs, an unusually high number at this early stage according to reporting by Bloomberg Law. They include former prison officials, media groups, faith organizations, and even book clubs. While other states have seized issues of PLN at different times, no prison system has enacted a total ban like Florida. Florida officials have argued that the publication was banned because of ads that encourage escape attempts and not because of the content that includes legal updates and reporting on abuses in prisons. PLN is represented by former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement. [Jordan S. Rubin / Bloomberg Law] See also Our June 13, 2018 newsletter looked at the Florida prison system’s ban on Prison Legal News.

Detroit police seized cars last year from nearly 400 people who weren’t charged with crimes: In 2017, law enforcement in Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, seized 380 cars from people who were not charged with crimes. Statewide, police seized 736 vehicles from people not charged with crimes. Nearly all the vehicles seized in Wayne County were valued at less than $1,000, and one expert suggested that the forfeitures had targeted low-income people who were less likely to have the assistance of a lawyer with getting their property back. Unlike some other states, Michigan law allows property seized through civil asset forfeiture to be transferred to the government regardless of whether a person is convicted or even charged. This year, three individuals filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that Wayne County forces people to wait months or even years for asset forfeiture hearings, in violation of the plaintiffs’ right to due process. [Tyler Arnold / Michigan Capitol Confidential]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.