Amid charges that renowned New Orleans baker and actor Dwight Henry stole cash from his former place of business, prosecutors are re-examining a 2006 homicide for which Henry was arrested but never charged, saying it’s not clear why former District Attorney Eddie Jordan’s administration did not prosecute the case.
Months after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters crippled the criminal justice system, New Orleans police booked Henry with second-degree murder in the Super Bowl Sunday stabbing death of Leroy Paige. Few details of the case have surfaced publicly, but authorities previously alleged in court filings that the stabbing followed an argument that “escalated and became physical” outside an apartment in the Bywater.
The killing, which Henry’s cousin said was committed in self-defense, drew scant attention in the frenzied wake of the storm, and Paige’s family said they were never even contacted by Jordan’s office.
They claimed they learned Henry would walk free only after attending a court hearing that had been scheduled before the charges were dropped.
“He didn’t get his due because everything was scattered,” Paige’s mother, Veronica Lewis, said in an interview inside her 9th Ward home this week. “It was just crazy, the way everything was. If this death would have happened pre-Katrina, it would have made the news.”
Prosecutors quietly refused the murder charges in September 2006, apparently because they believed a key witness would lack credibility, having abused drugs in the past.
When The New Orleans Advocate inquired this week about why murder charges against Henry had not been pursued, prosecutors said they could not immediately discern the reason after reviewing the file. They noted there is no statute of limitation for murder in Louisiana.
“We are going to take a look at the case anew to see if a viable prosecution still exists,” said Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who has accepted a far higher percentage of cases for prosecution than his predecessors.
“It’s not clear, to this District Attorney’s Office, why the case was refused in 2006,” Bowman added.
That news came as a relief to Paige’s mother and his widow, who quickly acknowledged that Paige had been far from perfect himself.
While they said they have forgiven Henry, they avoid his pastries and refuse to watch any of his movies. They feel they have not yet had their day in court.
“If it goes to trial and they find him innocent, then I’m done,” Lewis said of Henry. “I can accept something being done, but nothing has been done.”
Henry, 51, gained international acclaim for his unlikely ascent to the big screen, where he is perhaps best known for his lead role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a 2012 independent film that garnered four Academy Award nominations. Previously unmentioned in Henry’s Cinderella story — he had no prior acting experience and was first encouraged to audition while working in his St. Claude Avenue bakery — has been his criminal history, which includes a series of arrests and convictions dating back to 1988, mostly for minor offenses like marijuana possession.
A state Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Henry had been on supervised probation between 1989 and early 1995 after one such conviction and that he once “absconded” from supervision in late December 1997 and was then incarcerated for a year.
“Does he have a past? Yes, he does,” said Henry’s cousin, Troy Henry, a former mayoral candidate, contending that Paige’s family had “moved past” his stabbing death. “Obviously, (Dwight Henry) has enjoyed a very stellar reputation since that very unfortunate incident occurred.”
Henry, who turned himself in to authorities Thursday and was booked with theft, has not returned calls seeking comment this week, though his agent, Rocky Arceneaux, dismissed the theft allegations as “a misunderstanding.”
That charge stemmed from an Oct. 30 incident in which Henry allegedly let himself into the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café using his old key and swiped several hundred dollars from the cash register. Henry served as head baker at the North Dorgenois Street business before starting another bakery near the French Market.
While Henry’s supporters have disputed the theft charges — Benh Zeitlin, the director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” assailed The New Orleans Advocate’s coverage of the case as “full of lies and deeply slanderous” — they brought fresh attention to his fatal encounter with Paige, whose death was ruled a homicide by former Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard.
Paige’s killing, which happened the night of Feb. 5, 2006, came amid the most chaotic period in the history of the local criminal justice system, a time when witnesses and officers were displaced and prosecutions, in some instances, were rendered infeasible or shelved indefinitely.
“An ineffective system got appreciably worse in the aftermath of the storm,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group. “The criminal justice system, like everything else in the city, basically shut down.”
The performance of New Orleans’ criminal justice system had been deficient long before Katrina. In August 2005, the Metropolitan Crime Commission released a report that said Jordan’s office was failing “to put violent and repeat offenders behind bars,” citing a 12 percent homicide conviction rate and a “53 percent refusal rate for these cases.”
“A schism existed between police and prosecutors, who blamed each other for the failure of cases to progress from prosecution to conviction,” Goyeneche added. “I think there may be a number of cases that you’d find in the aftermath of Katrina” that may justify a second look.
Paige’s stabbing happened about 11:15 p.m. outside an apartment at 811 Poland Ave.
Paige’s widow, Melissa Paige, said she hurried to the scene after receiving a frantic call from a relative about a volatile and deteriorating situation between Henry and Leroy Paige. She said she was on the phone with the relative, Lewis’ niece, when the stabbing happened and that she arrived to find the knife still in her husband’s chest as he sat in the driver’s seat of his vehicle.
Melissa Paige alleged she saw Henry “fleeing” the Poland Avenue residence in a vehicle. When she arrived at the residence, she said, she could not get any cellphone service and had to drive her wounded husband some 12 miles to East Jefferson General Hospital, where he died.
A New Orleans police report shows the authorities did not learn about the stabbing until 11:40 p.m., when officers responded to the residence and found “a kitchen-type knife sitting in a pool of blood on the front porch.”
A dispatcher began checking with area hospitals and determined Leroy Paige, a father of seven, had been taken to East Jeff. A death certificate shows he was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. It listed the cause of death as a “stab wound to the chest.”
Police located three witnesses, including Henry’s girlfriend at the time, who implicated Henry in the stabbing, according to an arrest warrant. Orleans Parish Prison records indicate that Henry was arrested three days after the stabbing and that he was released the following day in lieu of a $100,000 bond that had been pre-set by Judge Charles Elloie, who later retired amid controversy over his penchant for reducing bonds.
Elloie said Thursday he did not recall Henry coming through the justice system but contended the relatively low bond had been vindicated by the refusal of the murder charges. He expressed surprise that Cannizzaro’s office has decided to re-examine the 2006 homicide, saying he didn’t see the “nexus” between Henry’s current theft charge and the fatal stabbing. “They’re responding to the media rather than what they already know,” Elloie said.
Ron Ruiz Jr., the former NOPD homicide detective who investigated the case, recalled this week that there had been some kind of problem with the credibility of a witness, whom he described as “either a heroin or a crack addict,” adding prosecutors “didn’t want to go off of that individual’s testimony alone.”
“The answer we got was that the evidence wasn’t strong enough,” Melissa Paige added.
Jordan, the former district attorney, said he had no recollection of Leroy Paige’s stabbing death and, like other district attorneys, relied on a team of experienced subordinates to screen cases. He acknowledged that the months after Katrina had been difficult, due in part to the city’s rapid reduction in population.
“There weren’t enough people in the city you could put together to even have a jury immediately after the storm,” he said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.