Prosecutors filed notice Thursday that they will appeal the 13-month sentence handed down Wednesday to Seth Fontenot, who faced up to 40 years in prison on manslaughter and aggravated battery charges in the 2013 shooting death of 15-year-old Austin Rivault and injuries to two other teenagers.
Rivault’s family, who had asked state Judge Edward Rubin for the maximum prison term of 40 years, also spoke out Thursday in a statement sent to local media.
“We are appalled at yesterday’s ruling and the message Judge Rubin sent to this community: that 18-year-olds will not be held responsible for their actions, even when those actions include murder,” the statement read. “Judge Rubin showed a clear disregard for the lives of Seth Fontenot’s victims, who harmed or violated no one that night. Justice was denied to our families.”
Assistant District Attorney J.N. Prather Jr. decried Rubin’s sentence as far too lenient for Fontenot, who killed Rivault and injured the other two teens when he fired into their truck in what Fontenot said was a tragic accident.
But prosecutors face an uphill battle in trying to secure a harsher sentence.
State judges in Louisiana have wide latitude in sentencing, as long as they stay within the range defined by law, which in this case was zero to 40 years.
“It’s within the discretion of the trial court to give whatever sentence he deems appropriate,” said Katherine Guillot, one of Fontenot’s defense attorneys.
Prather said his initial argument to the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal will focus not on the length of the sentence but on the more technical issue of whether Rubin was allowed to suspend a portion of the jail term.
The judge sentenced Fontenot to three years in prison on a manslaughter charge for Rivault’s death and on two counts of aggravated battery for injuries to Cole Kelley and William Bellamy, who were both 15 at the time of the shooting.
But the judge suspended all but 13 months of the sentence, meaning the effective jail term is 13 months minus any credit for good behavior.
Prather said state law prohibits the suspension of any portion of a sentence for offenses defined under state law as crimes of violence, a list that includes manslaughter or aggravated battery.
The prosecutor said his hope is simply to have the appeals court put the case back in front of Rubin for resentencing, where prosecutors can try again.
Even if the appeals court sent the case back down to Rubin, there would be no guarantee of more jail time.
In a similar case four years ago, Jerry Steinle, 65, faced a second-degree murder charge, but Rubin convicted him on the lesser charge of manslaughter after a bench trial where Steinle argued self-defense.
The judge handed down a three-year sentence in that case but suspended all of it and gave Steinle two years’ unsupervised probation.
Prosecutors challenged the sentence on the grounds that the judge could not suspend the sentence for a crime of violence, and Rubin responded by voiding the initial sentence and sentencing Steinle instead to one year of home incarceration.
Rubin on Wednesday said the 13-month sentence in Fontenot’s case was a reflection of what the jury found in March, that Fontenot did not intend to kill Rivault.
Fontenot was tried on charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder, but the jury found him guilty of the lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated battery.
The judge also said psychologists’ testimony in the March trial convinced him that Fontenot’s young brain — he is 21 now but was 18 at the time of the shooting — was not developed enough to make sound decisions when he pulled the trigger.
Fontenot testified at trial that he intended only to scare away who he thought were thieves trying to break into his truck outside his family’s Green Meadow road home in south Lafayette about 1:45 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2013.
Rivault was hit in the back of his head and died in the Silverado’s rear seat.
Kelley, the driver, was hit in the leg, and Bellamy suffered a bullet to the back of his neck.
Kelley and Bellamy survived to testify at Fontenot’s trial and said they were driving Rivault from a party to his home just a few doors down from where Fontenot lived and had no idea why someone was shooting at them.
Fontenot is scheduled to be back before a Lafayette judge in October on two felony distribution of amphetamine charges that could net him a longer sentence than he received in the Rivault killing.