Barring another delay or a last-minute plea before his first-degree murder trial, Seth Fontenot this week will fight to keep from going to prison for the rest of his life for shooting and killing a teen in 2013 and injuring two others.
It won’t be easy: There’s never been any question that Fontenot shot at a truck with three boys inside. And there’s never been any indication the boys posed a threat to Fontenot or his family. When he pulled the trigger of his 9mm three times, the truck carrying the teens was headed away from Fontenot. Fontenot later told detectives he shot at the truck’s tail lights to scare the boys, not to hurt them.
“When he sees that the vehicle is leaving the scene … and he shoots at that vehicle … I don’t see how they can possibly, possibly get around that,” said Shenequa Grey, an associate professor at Southern University Law School.
In October, Fontenot offered to plead guilty to negligent homicide for killing Austin Rivault, a St. Thomas More Catholic High School freshman with a slight build who liked to fish. The 15th District Attorney’s Office did not accept Fontenot’s offer, which would have brought with it a sentence of zero to five years, far less than the many years in prison he faces now.
The jury of 12 Lafayette Parish residents will need 10 votes to convict Fontenot, who is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder. After the charges were filed, prosecutors decided not to pursue the death penalty, which is a possible sentence for first-degree murder.
The jury also could find Fontenot guilty of lesser offenses: second-degree murder and attempted murder; manslaughter and attempted manslaughter; or a combination. Both first- and second-degree murder charges carry sentences of automatic life in prison with no parole, and a manslaughter conviction gives a judge a sentencing range of zero to 40 years in prison at hard labor. Even a conviction for attempted murder is punishable with decades in prison.
There’s also the chance a jury will find him not guilty. But legal experts say that is unlikely, even if the jury believes the boys who were shot at that morning were up to no good.
“You can use force or violence in defense against trespassing as long as it’s reasonable and necessary to prevent the offense against your property,” said Katherine Maris Mattes, a professor at Tulane University Law School. “But if it results in a homicide, you can’t use that defense.”
What happened early Feb. 10, 2013, is well documented in media accounts and through court records, which include a transcript of an interview Fontenot had with detectives hours after the shooting: He awoke before 2 a.m. that Sunday to the sound of somebody breaking into his truck. He peered out the window, saw two people running, grabbed his 9mm pistol and headed out the front door of the Green Meadow Road Home he shared with his mother, stepfather and older sister in south Lafayette. In the street, a truck with three 15-year-olds, one at the wheel, was pulling away, and Fontenot fired three hollow point rounds into the truck.
Rivault, sitting in the backseat, was killed. The driver, Cole Kelley, and passenger William Bellamy were injured but survived. Fontenot told detectives hours later that he didn’t mean to hurt the teens and that he aimed at the truck’s tail lights.
Despite Fontenot’s insistence that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, a grand jury charged him with first-degree murder and attempted murder in February 2013. One of the requirements of leveling a first-degree murder charge at someone is the belief they intended to harm more than one person, according to Louisiana’s revised statutes.
“The issue for the jury is going to be whether he intended to inflict great bodily harm on the boys,” Mattes said. “… That’s going to have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The 15th District judges who have presided in the case, first Kristian Earles and now Ed Rubin, prohibited prosecutors and defense attorneys from speaking to reporters about the case. At one point, Rubin even sealed court records and closed off court hearings from public and media view, until The Acadiana Advocate and KATC Communications intervened and were successful in convincing another judge to reopen the hearings and unseal the records.
Rubin, who was out on medical leave for the last few months, has been medically cleared to preside over the trial.
In early 2013, Fontenot defense attorneys Thomas Guilbeau and Katherine Guillot were unsuccessful in getting Fontenot’s statements to police thrown out as evidence. So they’ve concentrated Fontenot’s defense on what the boys he shot at were up to that morning. The attorneys also have portrayed Fontenot as a victim whose truck had been broken into quite a few times before the deadly shooting, and that the teens had allegedly stolen beer from another home in the neighborhood.
Guilbeau and Guillot also highlighted an interview Kelley had with Lafayette police two days after the shooting, in which he said he was giving Rivault a ride home in a borrowed truck, and that Bellamy had been drinking beer and was drunk.
Kelley said he was lost and simply driving down a street when he saw Fontenot walk outside the home wearing underwear and red Converse sneakers and started shooting.
Kelley several times during the interview denied that he stopped the truck in front of Fontenot’s home on Green Meadow Road and said no one had gotten out of the vehicle from the time the three left a Mardi Gras party until they arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center.
The attorneys have described Kelley’s scenario of Fontenot firing on them for no reason as far-fetched.
“Studies have shown that in most (trials), it’s the characteristics of the victims that often juries focus on in terms of how they respond and how much empathy they have for the defendant,” Mattes said.
There have been reams of court documents filed in the case, including a motion filed Friday.
Assistant District Attorney J.N. Prather is asking Judge Rubin to allow evidence that Fontenot had the drug Adderall in his truck the night the boys were shot.
Prather wrote that Adderall is a form of methamphetamine and that Fontenot was a known drug dealer among his University of Louisiana at Lafayette schoolmates. Prather theorized that word got around that Fontenot stashed drugs in his truck, which might have led to the frequent break-ins.
“The defendant has claimed that he was a beleaguered victim of several recent vehicle burglaries as an explanation of shooting the victims; essentially his claim/defense is that he overreacted and/or was trying to scare them,” Prather wrote in the motion and noted that the weapon Fontenot used was a “military grade handgun.”
Fontenot has expressed remorse for what happened. At a court hearing in late 2013, where Judge Earles ruled that Fontenot’s incriminating text messages were admissible evidence, he buried his face in his mother’s shoulder and wept.