LAFAYETTE — The Acadiana Advocate and KATC Communications filed a petition Friday seeking access to sealed documents and transcripts of closed court hearings in the first-degree murder case against Seth Fontenot, the 20-year-old Lafayette man accused of killing 15-year-old Austin Rivault and wounding two other teens in a 2013 shooting.
Many documents in the case have been sealed from public view and at least two court hearings have been closed to the media and the public, a highly unusual practice in a case involving an adult defendant.
Attorneys for The Acadiana Advocate and KATC wrote in court filings that denying the media and public access to court records and proceedings “violates the clear mandate of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The petition asks the judge to let the two news organizations join the case to seek access to all sealed documents, transcripts of past closed court hearings and advanced notice of plans to close future hearings.
“This is a tragic case, but courts have the tools to protect the rights of defendants while at the same time honoring our nation’s tradition of open and transparent justice. We’re pleased to join our partners at KATC to fight against a secret judicial proceeding and insist that the court respect the First Amendment,” said Peter Kovacs, The Advocate’s editor.
Before filing the court petition on Friday, The Acadiana Advocate and KATC made a similar request in a Nov. 17 letter to 15th Judicial District Judge Edward Rubin, who is assigned to Fontenot’s murder case.
Rubin responded in a Nov. 25 letter that opening the sealed court documents to public view could result in publicity that would damage Fontenot’s right to a fair trial.
Attorneys for the newspaper and television argue that prior court rulings have found the sealing of court documents and the closure of court hearings should be supported by specific reasons, not just general statements that publicity might impair any future trial.
Rubin warned The Acadiana Advocate at a hearing in November not to publish information from sealed court documents in the murder case after the newspaper ran a story based on a transcribed account of Fontenot’s first interview with police that was filed into the court record and apparently left unsealed in error.
The judge said the newspaper must receive his approval before going to press with sealed information in the Fontenot case, adding that any reporter not following his directive “does so at your own peril.”
Fontenot is accused of killing Rivault and wounding the two other teens in the early morning hours on Feb. 10, 2013, by firing a 9 mm Beretta at a truck they were in.
Fontenot told police that he believed the teenagers were breaking into his truck.
A trial date has been set for March 16.