If not for cell phone video, 47-year-old disabled veteran Douglas Dendinger could be going to prison – because of an apparent coordinated effort by Washington Parish, La. cops and prosecutors who falsely accused him of battery and witness intimidation.
As New Orleans’ WWL reports, Dendinger’s two-year nightmare began on Aug. 20, 2012, when he was paid $50 to serve a court summons on behalf of his nephew against Bogalusa police officer Chad Cassard in a police brutality lawsuit.
Dendinger handed Cassard a white envelope containing the documents and says he went on his way. But 20 minutes later, police showed up to Dendinger’s house and arrested him. He was put in jail on charges of simple battery, obstruction of justice and intimidating a witness.
Two of those charges are felonies, and a prior cocaine conviction on Dendinger’s record threatened to land him in jail for a long time as a repeat offender.
But Dendinger was confident that a mistake had been made and that he would be released without cause since two prosecutors and several police officers had seen him hand over the summons peacefully.
But that’s not what happened.
A year after the incident, then-District Attorney Walter Reed brought charges against Dendinger. His case was backed by two prosecutors who asserted that Dendinger had assaulted Cassard. Seven witness statements also supported the case.
Cassard made the same claim, writing in a voluntary statement that Dendinger “slapped him in the chest” when he served the summons.
Pamela Legendre, a staff attorney who witnessed the hand-off, said she thought Dendinger had punched Cassard.
Bogalusa police chief Joe Culpepper said that Dendinger had used “violence” and “force.”
And another witness said in a deposition that Dendinger used such force when he served the summons that Cassard flew back several feet.
“It wasn’t fun and games, they had a plan, the plan was really to go after him and put him away. That is scary,” Philip Kaplan, the attorney representing Dendinger in his civil rights case, told WWL.
“I realized even more at that moment these people are trying to hurt me,” Dendinger told the news station.
Luckily for Dendinger, his wife and nephew had filmed him that day in order to prove that the court papers had been served.
Grainy video of the exchange shows Dendinger handing Cassard the summons and the former police officer walking away in the opposite direction. Though the video aired by WWL does not show the entire encounter, what it does not show is Dendinger slapping anyone or acting aggressively during the crucial moment when he served the summons.
The video also shows that the witness who claimed that Denginger’s force pushed Cassard back several feet had his back turned as the scene unfolded.
After Reed was forced to recuse his office from the case, it was referred to the Louisiana attorney general who quickly dropped the charges against Dendinger.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, told WWL that after viewing the video he did not see Dendinger commit battery on Cassard and that the officers and prosecutors involved could be looking at serious ethics charges.
“I didn’t see a battery, certainly a battery committed that would warrant criminal charges being preferred,” Goyeneche said.
“It’s a felony to falsify a police report,” Goyeneche continued. “So this is a police report, and this police report was the basis for charging this individual.”
Kaplan made the obvious point: ”If this was truly a battery on a police officer, with police officers all around him, why isn’t something happening right there?”