Stephen Portell helps Dennis Keys out of his wheelchair, demonstrating how difficult it is for Keys to stand. Keys, 73, was choked by a man in a bar and blames the attack for a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side. Despite a security tape showing the assault, charges in the case were dropped.

Benjie Sanders / Arizona Daily Star

Tucsonan Dennis Keys has faced both the ferocious severity and the casual generosity of Pima County prosecutors.

Unfortunately for him, he was on the losing end both times.

Keys, 70, has spent most of his life in Tucson, with one big exception — the 19 years he was in state prison for possessing and selling cocaine in the late 1980s.

Keys was given two life sentences for the drug charges — though the sentence was later lowered to 22 years 3 months — apparently because he was a repeat offender. A perfect record in prison — he had a rare zero infractions over those 19 years while steadily working prison jobs — helped him win early release in 2009.

Life back home in Tucson was going well — he was living in an east-side apartment and would go out dancing to a country band two or three nights a week.

It all fell apart Dec. 17, 2012.

That night, Keys went to Margarita Bay bar, 7415 E. 22nd St., to watch football and play pool. A bar security video shows what went wrong: A bigger man at the bar, later identified as John Leggett, slaps a woman hard across the face.

Keys takes a couple of steps toward Leggett and wags his finger at him, saying something while still six to eight feet away.

“I was shaking my head, telling him you don’t do that to women,” Keys told me last week.

Then, the video shows, Leggett attacks. He comes around the corner of the bar, briefly says something to Keys, then grabs him by the lapel and pushes him backward. Leggett’s hands move up to Keys throat as the two men leave the camera’s range.

Witnesses told police that Leggett, then 51, forced the much lighter Keys onto a pool table then onto the floor.

In the video, a man sitting at the bar gets up to intervene and is among a few customers who push Leggett out the door of the bar, while Keys is sprawled on the floor next to a pool table.

The attack was quick but devastating. Keys’ son, Steven, got a call from his father-in-law, who also was at the bar, and arrived while emergency responders were still working on his father.

“When they brought him out, they thought my dad was drunk. They wanted me to talk to him,” Steven Keys said. “I told them, ‘My dad is not intoxicated. I think my dad has had a stroke.’ ”

He was right: The reason Dennis Keys was slurring his words and unable to turn his head one direction was that the choking had loosened plaque in an artery, said his attorney, Stephen Portell.

Here’s how Keys’ vascular surgeon, Dr. Layla Lucas, explained it to me: “I think when that man choked him, it loosened a piece of that plaque, and that occluded some of the arteries in the brain.”

After a year of medical treatment and rehab, Keys remains unable to walk and now lives in an assisted-living facility. He has sued the bar for failing to protect him and others from a man, Leggett, whom they had cut off because he was so intoxicated. No employee was in the room when the attack occurred.

“I was pretty much self-sufficient. Now I can’t even take a shower by myself,” Keys told me at his son’s home Thursday.

On its face, that sounds like a classic aggravated assault. Under Arizona law, the first definition of aggravated assault is when one “person causes serious physical injury to another.”

Nevertheless, the Pima County Attorney’s Office declined to pursue the case as an aggravated assault, a felony, leaving it to the Tucson City Attorney’s Office to prosecute the case as a simple misdemeanor assault.

The reason, said chief criminal deputy Kellie Johnson, is prosecutors were uncertain “whether the assault actually caused the injury.”

“Based on the information we had from the medical records, there was a question whether we could prove it,” Johnson said.

Now, Johnson herself did not make this decision, she said, but went over notes of the decision-maker, so we can’t directly fault her. But someone in that office seems to have failed a common-sense test. Dennis Keys was fine one minute, then he was assaulted and choked the next minute, then he was having a stroke the following minute, losing all feeling on the left side of his body within a couple of hours.

Sounds like a pretty clear case of causing “serious physical injury” to me.

Worse, this was one of a long series of crimes Leggett has committed, rarely receiving jail time and almost always getting probation or diversion of some sort, thanks in part due a mental-illness diagnosis. Some highlights:

  • Convicted of felony forg
    ery in 1992, Leggett got four years of probation.
  • Convicted of a 1999 domestic-violence assault, he did a diversion program.
  • Convicted of a 2008 misdemeanor theft, he did another diversion program.
  • Convicted of a 2009 domestic-violence assault, he was released to La Frontera behavioral health and did a monitored diversion program.

In November 2012, just a month before the attack on Keys, Leggett assaulted another woman, choking her for 30 to 45 seconds, a pre-sentence report says. And a month after the attack on Keys, Leggett was arrested for violating a protection order.

All these cases were cleared up in Superior Court and City Court hearings in May and June last year. Before Leggett’s sentencing, probation officer Petra Coronado wrote in Leggett’s pre-sentence report: “Based on the repetitive nature of the instant offense, a period of incarceration may be warranted to avoid putting the community, and especially those with whom he is romantically involved, at risk.”

After Leggett pleaded guilty to a felony domestic-violence assault for the November attack and to violating the protective order, Superior Court Judge Scott Rash sentenced him to three years of probation and 60 days in jail.

The charges stemming from the assault on the woman at the bar and the assault on Keys were dismissed with prejudice, meaning they can’t be re-filed. So in the end, Leggett was not convicted of anything for a videotaped assault that disabled a man.

Leggett declined to comment when I reached him by phone Friday, and his attorney, John O’Brien, was unavailable because he’s on vacation.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s good that our justice system can take into account issues like mental illness and substance abuse when dealing with a troubled defendant. But at some point the public’s patience with repeat offenders like Leggett runs out.

It was especially galling when on Friday I called the workplace that Leggett reported as his current employer after the attack on Keys in December 2012. He answered. After all this, he served little time and was back in his job.

Keys, on the other hand, did his time prison time perfectly but now faces a life of disability.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter