It looked like a legal mismatch.
Five police officers and three attorneys claimed that Doug Dendinger committed battery when he served notice of a lawsuit against one of the cops back in 2012. Dendinger, who also was charged with witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, could have spent decades in prison if convicted, because of his past criminal record.
“Had they had their way, I’d be in prison for the rest of my life,” he said.
Now the tables have been turned. Dendinger is no longer a defendant; the criminal charges against him were dropped by the state Attorney General’s Office.
And two of the lawyers who accused him, ex-prosecutors Leigh Anne Wall and Julie Knight, along with their former boss, then-22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed, are defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by Dendinger. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan denied motions to dismiss the three from the suit.
“I am determined, because this has never been about anything else but holding them accountable,” Dendinger said. “I don’t want them in a position to do this to anybody else.”
Shortly after Dendinger’s arrest, the witnesses gave similar statements about what happened, portraying an unwarranted use of physical force on the steps of the Washington Parish Courthouse.
Knight said Dendinger “hit” the officer in the chest.
In her statement to deputies, contained in a police report, Knight said, “We could hear the slap as he hit Cassard’s chest with an envelope of papers. ... This was done in a manner to threaten and intimidate everyone involved.”
The ex-Bogalusa police officer who was served, Chad Cassard, told deputies that Dendinger “slapped me in the chest.”
It was one-sided testimony on paper, but Dendinger had one powerful piece of proof in his favor. Dendinger had asked his wife to videotape the envelope hand-off with her cellphone. He said he merely wanted to prove he completed the task so he could collect his $50 fee.
The grainy snippet shows what Dendinger claimed all along, that he merely handed Cassard an envelope, never even touching him.
Because Knight and Wall were prosecutors for Reed at the time, Dendinger’s attorneys forced Reed’s office to be recused from prosecuting the case.
As soon as the case was taken over by the Attorney General’s Office, the charges were promptly dismissed.
But the dismissal was not enough for Dendinger. He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officers and attorneys, including Reed.
The suit has been considered a long shot. Prosecutors enjoy strong legal immunity for going about their jobs as advocates for the state, however aggressively.
That’s why Dendinger was pleasantly surprised that Berrigan kept the attorneys on the hook by denying their motions to be dismissed.
“That was very encouraging,” Dendinger said. “Apparently, if I understand it right, and I’m no lawyer, it looks like I’ll have my day in court and the truth will be told.”
Berrigan did reject some aspects of the lawsuit. She threw out claims of false arrest and imprisonment because Dendinger didn’t file his suit within a year of his arrest. She also threw out most claims related to the attorneys’ official actions as prosecutors.
But Berrigan left Reed in the suit for overseeing the alleged malicious prosecution. And she kept Wall and Knight in for their action outside their role as prosecutors, in particular, for allegedly giving potentially false witness statements.
“The court finds that qualified immunity does not shield Wall and Knight for allegedly providing false witness statements,” Berrigan wrote in her ruling.
David Cressy, a former prosecutor under Reed and onetime Mandeville city attorney, said Dendinger’s lawsuit, and probably his freedom, is thanks to his last-second decision to have his wife videotape the envelope hand-off.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words. In this case, a million words and maybe about 80 years of this life,” Cressy said. “I think they went way out of bounds on what the immunity would allow. Again, back to integrity, it’s common sense.”
As for the attorneys, they’re dealing with other repercussions. Reed, who held his elected office for 30 years, is fighting federal fraud charges and did not seek re-election. Wall and Knight have left the DA’s Office, which is now run by Warren Montgomery.
Reed’s attorney, Rick Simmons, said his client is weighing whether to try to stay the civil proceedings while the criminal case against him is pending.
Reed had no personal involvement in the Dendinger matter, Simmons said, but it’s routine for a supervisor to be included when someone sues an associate or assistant district attorney.
“They’ll have a heavy burden of proof to show personal involvement in the incident,” Simmons said.
Wall left the DA’s Office in March as the Dendinger case came to light; Knight cleaned out her office last week.
Wall now works as a staff attorney for the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, Executive Director Pete Adams said, adding that she had worked for the organization before working for Reed and had done an exemplary job.
He said he did not consider the litigation to be a barrier to hiring her.
“It’s just a civil lawsuit. Anyone can file a suit against anyone,” Adams said.
Knight’s attorney, David Paddison, said his client will be vindicated.
“She’s a good person, a good lawyer, and she didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Paddison also questioned whether the cellphone video submitted in the criminal case was selectively edited, saying he will use the lawsuit to try to get the full version.
“There’s nothing false in her statement,” he said. “Her perception was that it took place in a highly charged atmosphere and it was done in a manner to intimidate.”
Still, the departure of Knight and Wall has drawn attention for other reasons.
“The fact that the two prosecutors that were involved in this particular incident are no longer there is, I think, a validation of (Montgomery’s) campaign promise to change the image of that office,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Dendinger also filed complaints against Reed, Wall and Knight with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board. Charles Plattsmier, the board’s chief deputy counsel, said in a June 29 letter to Dendinger that the investigation had been completed with no “clear or convincing evidence” that the rules of professional conduct had been violated.
He noted the pending litigation, saying his office shouldn’t take steps that would interfere with a lawsuit. But Plattsmier said he reserved the right to reopen the matter if Dendinger wins his case.
Regardless of the outcome, Goyeneche said, Dendinger’s lawsuit represents another welcome sign of change in the justice system on the north shore.
“This lawsuit is significant, not just because of the dollar value of it,” he said, “but because of the public’s trust in law enforcement.”
Follow Sara Pagones and Mike Perlstein on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat and @MikePerlstein.