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If there is a defense, the camera missed it

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist
Published February 15, 2008

It played out on TVs and PCs from here to the UK: The female jail deputy walking behind the man's wheelchair and unceremoniously dumping him forward onto the floor.

Video: Watch what happened

[Hillsborough county sheriff video]
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Ican't imagine being a police officer. Can't imagine it.

Every workday would hold the possibility of seeing the ugliest in people, the worst they can dish up. Any day could be dangerous, even deadly.

Cops will tell you they're proud of the uniform and the responsibility. But with it comes an amazing amount of power, the kind with potential for abuse.

As in: I'm the cop. I'm in charge. You have no rights here.

On a routine January day, a camera at Hillsborough County's Orient Road Jail captured some jolting footage - or as Today show host Meredith Vieira would later tell a national audience, "a video that you have got to see to believe, and even when you see it it's hard to believe - a paralyzed man tossed from his wheelchair by a sheriff's deputy in Florida."

It played out on TVs and PCs from here to the UK: The female jail deputy walking behind the man's wheelchair and unceremoniously dumping him forward onto the floor.

Had she spilled a soda it might have gotten more attention that day. Even after the man was sprawled helpless-looking on the ground as he was frisked, the deputy's supervisors are seen going about their business.

Nobody seemed to care that a camera was watching. That came after.

Give credit to the Sheriff's Office - Sheriff David Gee in particular - for swift condemnation, for officials saying things like "horrific treatment" and "no excuse" and "indefensible," for apologizing and for not using that duck-and-cover move of "no comment pending investigation."

What happened between Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones, a 22-year veteran, and Brian Sterner, a quadriplegic who was being arrested on a traffic warrant, is hard to watch, every time.

No matter what was said between them, it seems unforgivable, every time.

Now the Sheriff's Office is investigating and the state attorney is expected to ultimately decide whether there should be a criminal charge. A likely contender: felony abuse of a disabled adult, defined as "an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or psychological injury to a disabled adult."

Well, unless the guy was saying, "Hey, instead of you helping me out of this chair, if you could just, you know, dump me on the floor like you were a spatula and I was a pile of scrambled eggs, that'd be easier on both of us," I'm not seeing much of a defense there. I called Norman Cannella, a lawyer with some experience here, being a former prosecutor and current defense lawyer who has represented several police officers charged with crimes.

"It would be terribly difficult to explain to a jury as a defense lawyer," Cannella said. "And easily explained by a prosecutor and by the video."

A postscript: Back when I worked at the courthouse as a reporter, I got to know the bailiffs, many of them big, burly guys who could keep inmates in line with a look.

One of the nicest was a female deputy who worked with a judge who liked the courtroom to run just so. Still, she kept things pleasant, always seemed even-keeled, funny, friendly. She was someone you never minded running into. Her name was Charlette, and every time I see her on that video, I can't imagine.

[Last modified February 14, 2008, 20:29:01]

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