Appellate court upholds Seth Fontenot’s 13-month sentence in Lafayette teen’s killing _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- Seth Fontenot steps out of a Lafayette Sheriff's Department transport van as he is escorted into the Lafayette Parish Courthouse Thursday, July 23, 2015, for a re-sentencing hearing.

A state appellate court has upheld the 13-month sentence that Lafayette Judge Ed Rubin meted out to Seth Fontenot for the February 2013 killing of a Lafayette teenager.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in an opinion this week denied a request by the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for an appellate review of the sentence, which prosecutor J.N. Prather argued was too lenient.

A panel of 3rd Circuit judges stated rather bluntly that prosecutors missed their chance to ensure Fontenot received a stronger sentence because they failed to file a particular court document in the early stages of the case that would have led to a longer sentence.

The District Attorney’s Office “could have and should have filed a simple piece of paper … seeking an enhanced penalty under clear provisions” of Louisiana law, the court wrote. If such a document had been filed, Fontenot would have been sent to prison for at least 20 years with no chance of parole, probation or suspension of sentence, according to the 3rd Circuit ruling, which was made public on Thursday.

The appellate judges wrote that state law contains provisions for an enhanced sentence if a felony is committed with a weapon. In Fontenot’s case, he killed 15-year-old Austin Rivault with a 9 mm Beretta.

Prather, reached Thursday afternoon, said he disagreed with the higher court’s ruling that the District Attorney’s Office missed a guaranteed 20-year sentence for Fontenot.

Prather said the section of the criminal code that the 3rd Circuit cites — specifically article 893.3 — still leaves sentencing up to the judge.

Fontenot was an 18-year-old college student when he shot and killed Rivault and wounded two other teens in south Lafayette.

Fontenot told police he was shooting at a truck containing the victims to scare them, believing they had tried to break into his vehicle.

Fontenot stood trial in March 2015 on one count of first-degree murder. A conviction on the murder charge would have put Fontenot in prison for life. But a jury convicted Fontenot on the lesser charge of manslaughter, which carries a jail sentence of zero to 40 years in prison and is at the discretion of the judge.

Rubin on July 8 sentenced Fontenot to three years in prison, then suspended all but 13 months of the sentence. A few weeks later Rubin had to correct the sentence because jail time in the conviction of violent crime cannot be suspended.

On July 23, Rubin stripped the suspended time from the sentence and simply ordered Fontenot to prison for 13 months. Fontenot is scheduled to be released later this year.

Fontenot’s lead defense attorney, Thomas Guilbeau, said Thursday that the 3rd Circuit’s four-page opinion “is powerful. … It was gratifying to me that the 3rd Circuit agreed with the ruling of Judge Rubin.”

Prather said he would discuss the 3rd Circuit ruling with District Attorney Keith Stutes and also with the parents of the teen killed by Fontenot before deciding whether to ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to look into Fontenot’s sentence.

After Fontenot was sentenced the second time, Rivault’s incensed father, Kevin Rivault, told reporters outside the courtroom that he would work with state legislators to guarantee sentences stiffer than 13 months for a conviction involving a death and a firearm.

Prather said he was working with Kevin Rivault on a bill sponsored by Lafayette Sen. Page Cortez. The bill, as it’s written now, would automatically enhance prison sentences under article 893.3 without having to file what the 3rd Circuit termed a “simple piece of paper.”

Senate Bill 196 will be heard in one of the Senate’s judiciary committees in the current legislative session.