A judge on Monday put a hold on unsealing sensitive information in the murder case against Seth Fontenot, a delay that came after a prosecutor said he would ask an appellate court to prevent revealing details about the juvenile victims who survived the 2013 shooting.
“I’m going to let the court of appeals resolve this issue,” said Harry Randow, a retired 9th District judge from Rapides Parish. Randow is filling in for 15th District Judge Ed Rubin, who is recovering from a medical ailment.
In 2014, Rubin shut down access to the Fontenot case files and barred media and the public from attending court hearings. The Advocate and KATC Communications have intervened in the case to unseal the records. Also asking to unseal documents is Fontenot’s attorney, Thomas Guilbeau.
Fontenot is accused in the February 2013 shooting of three teenage boys as they fled in a pickup from the Lafayette home Fontenot shared with his family. Fontenot, who said he thought the boys had broken into his vehicle, fired three 9 mm bullets, killing Austin Rivault and wounding the other two, who survived. Fontenot stands charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder. He faces life in prison. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
At a Feb. 2 hearing, Randow was asked to unseal the case files, including transcripts of two hearings. And he did, mostly, by ordering that almost all of the documents be opened for public purview.
But Randow set aside 10 documents — nine pleadings and the transcript of a November hearing — so he could weigh the privacy rights of the two juvenile survivors against the Louisiana Constitution’s mandate of open, public trials.
Assistant District Attorney J.N. Prather argued against opening the 10 documents because the two survivors were juveniles at the time of the shooting.
“We are once again victimizing the victims,” Prather said at the Feb. 2 hearing.
On Thursday, Randow in a written ruling said all 10 documents should be unsealed because the District Attorney’s Office “has not shown an overriding interest in continuing to seal documents and closure of the criminal proceedings in this matter where the parties/witnesses/victims are no longer juveniles and the case … is not a juvenile proceeding,” Randow wrote.
On Monday, attorneys in the case gathered for another hearing. Prather told Randow there was an additional filing containing statements by one of the juveniles that was attached to one of the documents. It is a statement that Randow has not reviewed, Prather said.
Guilbeau and Scott Keaty, attorney for The Advocate and KATC, told Randow that the attachment was a new development.
“Never was the court advised that the statement was attached,” Guilbeau said.
In the writ application to the 3rd Circuit asking for a review, Prather called Randow’s order an “error.”
What the survivors and Rivault were doing out late that night will likely be issues in Fontenot’s trial, which remains scheduled for March 16.
The survivors, now 17 years old, and Rivault were in a truck that was in front of Fontenot’s home on Green Meadow Road in south Lafayette on Feb. 10, 2013. The survivors were wounded by bullets from Fontenot’s Beretta handgun. Rivault, riding in the rear seat, was shot in the head and killed. Fontenot told detectives he was only trying to scare the boys he believed had broken into his truck.
On Monday the Fontenot case files remained closed, despite Randow’s judgment Feb. 2 to open all but 10 of the files. Officials with the Clerk of Court’s Office, which maintains civil and criminal files for the parish, said all last week they were awaiting instructions from the court on what to unseal.