A judge on Monday ordered that reams of sealed court documents in the murder case against Seth Fontenot be open to the public after The Acadiana Advocate, KATC Communications and Fontenot’s attorney fought to unseal the records.
The high-profile murder case against Fontenot, the 20-year-old man accused of killing 15-year-old Austin Rivault and wounding two other teens in a 2013 shooting, has been marked by secrecy over the past year.
Most court filings have been sealed from public view, and 15th Judicial District Judge Edward Rubin closed at least two court hearings to the media and the public, an unusual practice in a case involving an adult defendant.
Prosecutor J.N. Prather agreed on Monday that most of the court records should be open, but he argued to keep sealed eight documents — most filed by Fontenot’s defense attorney — that delve into questions about whether the two teenagers who survived had past run-ins with police or might have been involved on the night in question in illegal activity, such as drinking and stealing alcohol.
The issue will be decided by Harry Randow, a former Rapides Parish judge who was assigned ah hoc to hear the records issue because Rubin is recovering from a recent surgery.
Randow said he expected to rule later this week on the Prather’s request to keep those documents secret.
The contents of the documents in question were carefully avoided at Monday’s hearing. Prather said releasing them could hurt the reputation of the two surviving juveniles, who he maintained did nothing wrong.
“We are once again victimizing the victims,” Prather said.
Information about juveniles accused of a crime is generally sealed from public view, but a key issue at Monday’s hearing was whether that same protection should be given to juveniles who have become victims and witnesses in adult court, especially considering both of the surviving teenagers are now 17.
“It flummoxes the mind to think that any district attorney would do this,” Fontenot’s defense attorney, Thomas Guilbeau, said of the prosecution’s effort to keep the documents sealed.
The character of the two surviving juveniles is likely to play into Fontenot’s defense.
Fontenot told police he believed the three teenagers were breaking into his truck, and in an interview with detectives after the shooting, one of the teenagers said at least one of the other teenagers had been drinking stolen alcohol.
“My client is charged with first-degree murder. He has every right to have this court open and for the truth to come out,” Guilbeau said.
The attorney for The Acadiana Advocate and KATC, Scott Keaty, argued the media and the public have similar constitutional rights in an open society to monitor “what the government is doing.”
“You cannot leave people in the dark. They need to know how their government is working,” Keaty said.
The issue of pretrial publicity was not mentioned at Monday’s hearing, despite the fact that Rubin wrote in correspondence with attorneys for The Acadiana Advocate and KATC in November that opening records in the case could attract media attention that might damage Fontenot’s right to a fair trial.
Guilbeau, the attorney for Fontenot, is at odds with the judge on the issue, writing in recent court filings “that there are reasonable alternatives to closure that if implemented will adequately protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”
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.
A trial date has been set for March 16.
Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
Fontenot faces life in prison if convicted on the murder charges.
Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.