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Court says PBSO deputy, at center of excessive force claim, will not be dismissed from lawsuit

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Posted at 6:10 PM, Jun 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-18 18:10:32-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla.-- An appeals court has paved the way for a federal trial in the case of a mentally ill Loxahatchee man shot and killed on New Year's Eve two years ago.

The Palm Beach County deputy at the center of that shooting, Deputy Justin Rigney, will remain on the family's lawsuit, after the court raised doubts about whether the deputy was entitled to use deadly force.

Contact 5 first told you the story of Ricky Whidden in 2017. His parents called 911 after they say their son, who's schizophrenic, threatened suicide.

Whidden's girlfriend filed a federal lawsuit against Deputy Justin Rigney and PBSO, alleging excessive force.

The sheriff's office says Whidden lunged at a deputy with a knife, but family members say video shows him running away. In a decision released last week, the appeals court says it will leave it up to a jury to decide.

Video taken from a neighbor's surveillance camera shows the last moments of Ricky Whidden's life on December 31, 2016. He's seen running away from deputies as they approach him.

Whidden falls down after being shot with a less lethal round in the back, gets back up and falls again after being shot by another.

He falls a third time and doesn't get back up, after Deputy Justin Rigney fired several bullets. Rigney was one of several deputies on the scene.

Rigney told investigators Whidden was raising a knife above his shoulder as he ran toward him. He had asked the appeals court to take him off the excessive force suit, under qualified immunity, meaning he was acting in the scope of his job.

The appeals court denied that request, saying "there are disputed facts about whether Whidden posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others."

In their decision, the appeals court says no other officer testified that Whidden had been running with the knife in his hand, and add that Whidden is never shown in the video displaying the knife or making a threatening gesture.

The appeals court does say "it is clear from the video that Whidden is running away from several officers, but Rigney's location in relation to Whidden is not entirely clear."

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office shared this statement, saying "the judge is not saying the shooting was not justified, simply that there is a dispute as to whether the use of force facts prevent them from going to court. Simply, we say one thing and they say another and it has to go to court."

The State Attorney's Office declined to press criminal charges after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did an investigation in 2017.