Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has decided not to prosecute Dwight Henry, a well-known New Orleans baker and actor, in connection with a fatal stabbing in which Henry was arrested but not charged nine years ago.
Prosecutors reopened the investigation into the 2006 death of Leroy Paige after Henry, best known for his performance in the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was arrested last year in an unrelated theft case.
Long before Henry, 52, appeared in two acclaimed films, New Orleans police had accused him of plunging a knife into Paige’s chest during a heated argument in the Bywater neighborhood.
The second-degree murder arrest — along with Henry’s extensive rap sheet — was largely omitted from most stories about the improbable life of a humble baker who, with no professional training or acting experience, rose from obscurity to red-carpet fame.
The stabbing — Henry’s relatives have said he acted in self-defense — was not widely known until Henry was accused last year of barging into the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and swiping hundreds of dollars from the cash register.
Prosecutors, asked about Paige’s death last year, said it was not apparent to them why Cannizzaro’s predecessor, Eddie Jordan, had declined to bring charges in the case. But after a fresh review, Cannizzaro’s office, which accepts a far higher percentage of cases than Jordan’s administration did, has concluded the evidence could not support a prosecution.
“The District Attorney’s Office has closed its investigation of the homicide and will not be instituting charges at this time,” Christopher Bowman, a Cannizzaro spokesman, said last week. He declined to discuss why the charges were refused. There is no statute of limitations on murder.
Henry’s attorney, Ike Spears, said he was not surprised by the decision. He called Paige’s killing “justified.”
Not prosecuting “was the right decision in 2006, and it’s the right decision now,” Spears said.
Ron Ruiz Jr., the former NOPD detective who investigated Paige’s death, said last year he believed prosecutors initially rejected the case in part because of doubts about the credibility of a key witness, whom he described as a drug addict.
A review of investigative police reports shows that witnesses offered conflicting accounts of Henry’s role in a violent scuffle that spilled out of an apartment onto the Poland Avenue neutral ground.
Henry was inside the residence after 11 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2006 — Super Bowl Sunday — when Paige, 32, arrived with his cousin, Stacy, to pick up a young woman named Larrisha “Reese” Boutain, who had been seeing Henry. She was preparing to celebrate her 19th birthday that night when her visitors got into a loud argument with Henry.
Paige’s cousin told detectives that Henry got upset because he thought the cousin was making too much noise. She claimed Henry began “swinging a knife” inside the home.
“I wasn’t being obnoxious, but in the middle of my loudness, this guy comes from out the back of the house cursing us out, saying, ‘Get … out; you don’t need to be here,’ ” Stacy Paige said. “When he started pushing me out the door, my cousin took offense, and that started another argument, which we dissolved and walked out as respectable people.”
Once outside, Stacy Paige said, Henry and Leroy Paige pushed each other. “They was fighting, and Leroy fell,” she said. “Leroy fell, and he screamed, ‘Stacy, I been stabbed.’ ”
She claimed Henry “just walked off like he had no remorse,” police reports show.
Boutain also told authorities that Henry had gone into the kitchen to grab a cooking knife and that he ordered Paige out of the residence. But she portrayed Leroy Paige as an aggressor in the altercation.
After leaving the apartment, she said, Paige threw “something metal through my glass window.” He also struck Henry twice with a stick outside, Boutain said.
Dominic Biggers, a 44-year-old neighbor, told police he had seen two men and two women “scuffling out on the neutral ground.”
“I yelled, ‘This has got to stop!’ and that’s when it kind of broke up and the gentleman that got stabbed staggered up to the steps where I was standing,” Biggers told police. “I saw a big kitchen knife he had in his hand, which kind of worried me at first.”
Paige’s widow, Melissa Paige, said in an interview last year that she hurried to the scene of the stabbing after receiving a frantic call from a relative. She said she saw Henry fleeing the scene.
The stabbing happened just months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and Melissa Paige said she could not get any cellphone service to call 911. She drove her husband some 12 miles to East Jefferson General Hospital, where he died.
Leroy Paige’s mother, Veronica Lewis, said last year she felt robbed of her day in court. She said she has refused to watch any of Henry’s movies in recent years, including the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.”
“If it goes to trial and they find him innocent, then I’m done,” Lewis said. “I can accept something being done, but nothing has been done.”
While Henry will not face charges in the fatal stabbing, he is scheduled to stand trial Aug. 25 on the theft charge. In that case, he’s accused of showing up at the Buttermilk Drop Bakery in October and stealing more than $700 from the register. One employee said Henry acted “as if he was opening up the business, as if it was his own.”
Henry had worked at that bakery before starting his own new venture near the French Market, Wink’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Bistro. The theft allegations came amid a messy falling-out between Henry and the management of the Buttermilk Drop .
Spears said the theft charges do not appear to have interfered with Henry’s acting career. “As best I can tell, things are going well for him,” Spears said.
Henry played the father of Motown star Marvin Gaye in “Sexual Healing,” a forthcoming but long-delayed film about Gaye’s life. Gaye was fatally shot by his father in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.