If he hadn’t become a lawyer nearly four decades ago, Indianapolis attorney Ed DeLaney knows that choice could have prevented the attack that he believed was going to end his life.
Taking down his shingle also could be a way to prevent something similar in the future, he realized. But the thought of leaving the legal profession hasn’t crossed his mind once.
“Clearly, I wouldn’t have been attacked if I was not a lawyer, but I couldn’t give this up and I can’t be pushed out,” DeLaney said. “I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen, but I’ve pushed to make this have as little impact as possible. You can’t let it impact you like that, or you’ve lost.”
Rather, what happened to him Oct. 31, 2009, has strengthened his view of the legal profession and criminal justice system, not only giving him faith that what he does is right but proving that all attorneys need to do a better job in respecting, promoting, and protecting their own.
The veteran attorney who’s been practicing since October 1973 said his experience last year gave him a view he’s never had of the legal system before – that of a victim.
Before DeLaney’s attack, he’d faced threats and had heard of other attorneys’ encounters with danger, but he never had his own experience. His history is full of legal matters and cases where violence would have been expected: a case involving a murdered reporter, some of the nation’s most contested election recounts, and war crimes overseas. But this wasn’t something that presented that kind of danger, he said.
His encounter came on Halloween, a Saturday morning, when he met with a man who’d called asking for legal help on a potential real estate deal for Russian investors. DeLaney occasionally represents Russian clients and is fluent in that language, so it didn’t seem suspicious.
As it turned out, the man – Augustus Mendenhall – used a fake name to disguise his identity. Mendenhall had a long-standing grudge against DeLaney, who had worked a 1983 case involving Burke Mendenhall, Augustus’ father. A building the father owned outside Lafayette Square Mall was to be rented to an adult bookstore, and DeLaney’s mall developer client filed a suit to stop it. The Marion County prosecutor filed a civil suit to seize the bookstore, and the case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Mendenhall won on the issue, long after he’d agreed to not bring an adult bookstore there. But the litigation lasted, with the father at one time filing his own federal suit seeking $75 million in damages over lost business and harm to his reputation, but that case was ultimately dismissed.
At the time, the younger Mendenhall was about 12 years old but would have spent a chunk of his childhood exposed to whatever legal issues his family was caught up with. He blamed DeLaney and took it out on him during the attack.
Mendenhall was wearing a wig, gloves, and a strange coat when DeLaney picked him up from a church parking lot and drove him to look at the property in Carmel. At one point Mendenhall reached into a large zippered bag to get a retainer check, and instead he pulled out a .25-caliber pistol wrapped in a plastic bag, DeLaney recalled.
Mendenhall asked DeLaney if he’d had ever hurt anyone in a lawsuit, and wondered if he was right with God as he aimed the gun at the attorney’s head. But when he pulled the trigger, the gun jammed.
The two struggled, and DeLaney tried to escape as Mendenhall tried to keep control of the gun. Then, friends of DeLaney’s who live nearby drove by and stopped to talk. They noticed DeLaney making odd gestures to them – a signal DeLaney came up with to alert them. They called police, but DeLaney didn’t know that at the time and tried to escape. That led to continued beating and struggling until the police arrived and subdued Mendenhall. The attack left DeLaney with broken bones around his right eye, five broken ribs, a punctured lung, and cuts on the back of his head.
DeLaney said he recovered physically from the incident in about three months, but nearly a year later he’s still recovering mentally and emotionally. After the attack, the longtime lawyer – who is also a state representative – dove into his legislative duties and that took his mind off of what had happened to him.
He hopes the culmination of the weeklong trial can help put this behind him. Jurors delivered Sept. 15 a guilty but mentally ill verdict for Mendenhall, convicting him of attempted murder, robbery resulting in bodily injury, aggravated battery, criminal confinement, and misdemeanor resisting law enforcement. His sentencing is set for Oct. 15, and he faces 100 years in prison.
Testifying twice during trial, DeLaney said he spent a little more than an hour on the stand. He doesn’t remember much of what he said, nor does he remember that the judge called a recess to give him time to recover from an emotional breakdown. He later learned about that from media accounts of the trial.
“I vividly remember every detail of what happened and I’ll never forget it, but I have nowhere near that kind (of recollection) about the trial,” he said. “I’ve been in court a lot, but never like this where I was a central witness. It was so strange to be in that position.”
When he wasn’t testifying, DeLaney said he was separated from other witnesses and stayed out of the court. His wife, attorney Ann DeLaney, attended most of the trial that he couldn’t watch.
Before this, he had no idea about what it felt like during that separation of witnesses, and he felt that he was isolated from everything happening in the courtroom. That experience has given him a greater appreciation for someone who is not a “willing” or “neutral” witness, DeLaney said.
Ann DeLaney said it’s been a tough year, and like her husband she mostly regrets that this incident impacted their family, grandchildren, and the legal profession. Sitting at trial, she sometimes struggled to remain silent and found herself wanting to get up and make an argument herself. But she refrained, and overall she’s found herself appreciating how the process has played out.
“What’s encouraging is that no matter how horrific this past year has been, the system worked,” she said. “The prosecutor, defenders, judge, and jurors all did their job. As difficult as it can be to live through something like this, you take some solace from the fact that the system worked as it’s supposed to.”
Ed DeLaney said he hasn’t yet decided what he will say at the sentencing hearing, or really how he ultimately feels about the outcome of the case. He’s spent a lot of time pondering that, and plans to do much more before the sentencing.
“I didn’t believe in vengeance before this event, and I don’t believe in it now,” he said. “This is not a case that cries out for great sympathy, though. All I know is that it’s a loss, a terrible waste.”
While the attack itself is a serious and concerning matter, DeLaney finds even more troublesome the chilling fact that his attacker is an attorney, graduating from Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis in 2008. That same year, the DeLaneys’ daughter Kathleen was assigned to review Mendenhall’s character and fitness as part of her work on the review committee that screens applicants for the bar. Mendenhall asked for another attorney and was given one; he was later admitted to the bar in October 2008.
The Indiana Supreme Court suspended Mendenhall in a June 2009 order, and that disciplinary action has largely been on hold until this criminal case concludes. DeLaney saw that his attacker had been suspended last summer, but he hasn’t paid much attention to that action.
“He violated the most fundamental rule of being an attorney – that you will uphold your oath,” DeLaney said. “You go to law school to resolve matters peacefully – that’s the whole basis for our legal system, to avoid violence. This is a negation on everything we try to do as lawyers.”
Lawyers need to be aware of what’s happening around them and potential safety risks, but they also must take more pride in the profession and practice civility as much as possible, he said. This type of “attorney attacking attorney” incident damages the overall profession, he said.
That Mendenhall had the ability to put himself through law school and make something of himself as an attorney but chose to throw that away is something DeLaney regrets. He said this shows more attention is needed in the attorney-screening process because he learned during trial how Mendenhall had taken a deep interest in legal research during law school about his father’s case, and how the prosecutors presented a case showing extensive preparation and calculation leading to the attack.
“I had no idea, and you have to wonder if that’s why he went to law school,” DeLaney said. “Just like police, we have to be careful who we let into our ranks. This whole thing damages our legal profession and sets us back.”
Linda Loepker, executive director of the Board of Law Examiners, said that second-guessing the system in such an unfortunate situation is only natural. But one case such as this doesn’t signal anything is being done incorrectly.
Indiana is one of only a few states nationally that requires in-person interviews with each applicant rather than just a paper review, and the BLE does criminal checks and looks at personal histories and reference letters, Loepker said.
“That presumes that we aren’t doing a good job, and I believe we do a great job in screening applicants,” she said. “It’s easy to have a gut reaction when something like this happens, and it causes our board members to take notice, but that doesn’t mean we will or have to do a better job.” •