Nearly two years ago, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office Cpl. Steven Dickey said he became the face of police callousness around the world when he was shown laughing during an infamous videotape of a quadriplegic jail inmate dumped from a wheelchair at the Orient Road Jail.
Now Dickey, who was cleared of wrongdoing in the incident, has sued the owners of St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 and reporter Mike Deeson for slander and defamation.
Filed Tuesday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, the action contends WTSP's story on the incident unfairly drew Dickey into the controversy and led to global ridicule when the footage became a viral sensation on the Internet.
The lawsuit, which asks for a verdict in excess of $15,000, accuses the station of deliberately editing video of the moment on Jan. 29, 2008, when inmate Brian Sterner was hurled from his wheelchair. The edit makes it appear that Dickey participated and was laughing at Sterner's difficulty, the lawsuit contends.
Dickey's attorney, Elihu Berman, said the officer walked by the scene as Sterner was being placed back into his wheelchair and was unaware he had been dumped from it until Deeson's story aired. The officer, who says he was laughing at a joke another deputy told at the time, was suspended with pay for three months while officials investigated the matter, Berman said.
After the incident, two deputies resigned, a third was fired and three others suspended without pay.
"We concluded the station has deliberately misrepresented the facts and they have done that to make the film more entertaining or to help their ratings," said the attorney, who compared a copy of WTSP's story with unedited video provided by the Sheriff's Office to reach his conclusions. "A retraction … isn't going to help reach the people around the world who saw this."
Ken Tonning, general manager at WTSP, declined to comment, saying he hadn't seen the lawsuit. But Barbara Wall, an attorney for WTSP owner Gannet Co., sent Berman a letter Nov. 2 saying the station used an editing technique called a "dissolve," to show that some time passed between the edited sections of video.
She also maintained WTSP provided a "fair and accurate account" of the unedited videotape.
"The gist of the station's report is exactly that of the government's tape: That deputies dumped Mr. Sterner out of a wheelchair and Mr. Dickey — aware of Mr. Sterner's treatment — found something amusing about the situation," wrote Wall.
In a subsequent report on the incident, Deeson noted Dickey had demanded a retraction, while revealing comments from Sterner and a top official in the Sheriff's Office that the laughter made the situation worse.
"Weeks after this happened (Dickey) was at a gas station filling up his tank and someone he didn't know said something nasty," Berman said. "The embarrassment and humiliation from this was widespread."