Let's wait to hear the whole jail story

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist
Published February 20, 2008

Jail accused of culture of abuse, the headline said, and it's true that things sure didn't look good in the wake of last week's wheelchair scandal.

First, we got that wince-inducing video of a Hillsborough jail deputy flat-out dumping a quadriplegic man from his wheelchair and sending him tumbling to the floor. On its heels came the 2006 video of another female deputy whaling on a female inmate. Neither played well on the nightly news.

In the wheelchair case, the sheriff acted quickly and decisively, charging Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones with a felony before the week was out. She has since resigned. In the second case, sheriff's officials say they reviewed the allegations three times over and found proper procedure was followed.

So. Wouldn't right about now be a good time for us to take a breath, check our public outrage and watch to see how this all shakes out?

Lately I've been thinking of another video of a different inmate in a different town, being manhandled by the guys in uniform. That video was powerful enough to threaten careers and rate felony charges, to get the attention of legislators and warrant big-money compensation. But in the end, a jury saw something different on that video, and you know the rest: Seven Panama City boot camp guards and a nurse, all acquitted of manslaughter in the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.

How about the story of the granny in Clearwater who wanted only to wait at the McDonald's drive-through for her special-order french fries sans salt, and the mean cop who went and arrested her? Followed by the internal affairs report clearing him after witnesses said granny got profane while the officer was professional?

Which is not to say, in the case of the deputy and the wheelchair, we should be hunting for a defense for an act that looks pretty indefensible. But don't you want to know the rest of the story? What was said? Why no one interceded?

Lawyer Norman Cannella was quoted in this space last week saying this case sure looked easier for a prosecutor armed with that video than for a defense lawyer. Later, Cannella, who has successfully represented other cops, was hired by the deputy.

Cannella says this case turns the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" on its head: "This is a picture that needs a thousand words." The video has no audio. "There was a lot of conversation," is all Cannella will say on that for now.

"We already understand that the deputy is going to claim some kind of verbal provocation," says John Trevena, lawyer for Brian Sterner, the man in the wheelchair. Sterner says the deputy told him to stand up, he said he couldn't, and that's it.

A claim that he taunted her? It wouldn't be a legal defense, though it might affect how a jury sees this drama. You'd assume most people being booked into jail are at least unhappy, not to mention those who come drunk, drugged, verbally abusive, violent. Not a job I'd want, but jail deputies should be trained to deal with it.

What I want to understand is why someone with a 22-year career and a personnel file full of attaboys from bosses and the public did what's on that video. Jail culture? Too much time with inmates? Something else? We should wait and watch and see.