Court ruling sets stage for trial in 2016 PBSO shooting of mentally ill man
Palm Beach Post - 6/14/2019
WEST PALM BEACH -- Videos that captured the final moments of Ricky Whidden's life raise doubts about a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy's claims that he had good reason to shoot the mentally ill Loxahatchee man in 2016, an appeals court ruled this week.
The ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sets the stage for a federal jury to decide whether then-Corporal Justin Rigney used excessive force when he shot the 42-year-old eight times after Whidden's parents summoned deputies for help.
>>PREVIOUS STORY: Loxahatchee man's family sues PBSO over his December shooting death
Two videos, shot from a neighbor's security cameras, show Whidden running away from Rigney and other deputies, the Atlanta-based appeals court said. While Rigney claims Whidden threatened him with a knife, the videos don't show the threat and other deputies disputed it, the court wrote.
"Several of the deputies on the scene testified that they did not see Whidden's knife until after they rolled over his dead body, which is evidence that could support a finding, for example, that Whidden had the knife tucked into his jacket," the appeals court wrote.
Further, they said, even if Whidden had threatened Rigney with a knife, the officer was in no danger.
"There was at least 15 feet between him and Rigney, which included a three-foot tall hedge that he would have had to get over to attack Rigney," they wrote.
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Rigney, who was a high-ranking K-9 officer at the time of the shooting, retired in 2018. He is suing Sheriff Ric Bradshaw for lost wages, claiming he was demoted in 2017 after he complained that police dogs were being mistreated, according to the lawsuit he filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
Rigney's attorney declined comment on the appeal's courts decision as did the sheriff's office.
Attorney Stuart Kaplan, who is representing Whidden's three children, his longtime girlfriend and his parents in the lawsuit, said he was not surprised the court upheld last year's decision by U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks.
"The shooting, under any circumstance, was unjustified," Kaplan said. "Ricky Whidden had not committed a crime. He hadn't resisted arrest. The only thing he was guilty of was suffering from mental illness and, as far as I know, being mentally ill is not a crime."
Whidden was shot after his parents called deputies to help their son, who said he was having suicidal thoughts, Kaplan said. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2014, Whidden had recovered, was employed as an arborist and enjoying his family.
Then, days before New Year's Eve in 2016, when his girlfriend and children were visiting her parents out of state, he relapsed, Kaplan said.
"The real tragedy of this situation is that officers aren't properly trained to diffuse situations involving the mentally ill," he said.
Teri Barbera, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, said deputies receive crisis intervention training so they know how to deal with people with psychological problems.
With the appeals court's ruling, Kaplan said he is hopeful that a trial can be held in the fall. He declined to say how much he would be seeking.
Bradshaw has settled roughly a dozen excessive force lawsuits in recent years. The last time one when to trial, a jury in 2016 ordered the agency to pay $22.4 million to shooting victim Dontrell Stephens, who was paralyzed from the waist down when a deputy's bullet severed his spine. Bradshaw has blocked Stephens' efforts to recover the money.
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