More court files in the Seth Fontenot murder case came into public view Thursday, including a defense request to block prosecutors from showing the future trial jury photos of the accused posing gangster-style with both a gun and his sister’s baby.
Fontenot also asked Judge Ed Rubin to question potential jurors one by one instead of the usual way of choosing a jury from group panels. Posing questions to individuals, his attorney Thomas Guilbeau wrote in a September motion, would better ensure an impartial jury.
Both requests are among the reams of court files unsealed as a result of court action sought by The Advocate and KATC Communications, media companies that objected to Rubin closing almost the entire case file last year. Guilbeau, too, filed court papers on behalf of Fontenot asking to have most records opened.
This month, visiting Judge Harry Randow ruled that the vast majority of the files belong in public view, and he ordered that all but 10 or so files be opened immediately. The Clerk of Court’s Office, however, last Friday experienced problems unsealing the records. At one point, the entire computer case file disappeared. Technicians later restored the files Wednesday night but without unsealing all the documents that Randow demanded. On Thursday morning, the clerk’s office said the problem had been resolved.
Fontenot is charged with first-degree murder in the Feb. 10, 2013, shooting death of Austin Rivault, 15, and two counts of attempted first-degree murder in wounding two other 15-year-olds. Fontenot admitted to firing his 9 mm Beretta pistol three times at a truck the teens were in, which was speeding away from his house. Later that day, a Sunday, Fontenot told detectives he was trying to scare the boys, not hurt them. The teens each were hit with one hollow-point bullet. Rivault, who rode in the truck’s rear seat, was killed.
Early on in the 2-year-old case, prosecutors informed Judge Kristian Earles, who at the time presided over the case, that they planned to use photos of Fontenot posing with a gun. Rubin, who recently has been on medical leave, took over the case in January 2014.
“One of those photographs depicts (Fontenot) posing with an infant while holding an apparently loaded 9 mm of the same type and model used in the crimes now before this court in a manner mimicking a common pose for a street gang member,” former Assistant District Attorney Mark Garber wrote in October 2013. Garber has since resigned from the District Attorney’s Office and handed the case to prosecutor J.N. Prather.
Fontenot, through his attorney Guilbeau, is fighting the admission of the photos as evidence. Guilbeau wrote that any value the photos have in furthering the case is outweighed by the prejudice jurors would feel toward the defendant.
“The … photographs of the defendant are extremely offensive to any juror and prejudicial in that they seek to portray the defendant as a ‘bad man,’ ” Guilbeau wrote. “The use of photographs should be relevant to the defendant’s state of mind as an element of the crime charged. Here, photographs of the defendant have no bearing on an element of first-degree murder or attempted first-degree murder.”
Guilbeau also argues that the Lafayette Parish residents who will make up the pool of potential jurors have been both inundated with information and misinformed about the Fontenot case. Guilbeau wrote that the question-and-answer session during jury selection — voir dire in court parlance — should be done individually and not in multiperson panels.
“Much of the publicity and discussion involves extremely prejudicial and inaccurate information which will not be admissible at the trial,” Guilbeau wrote in the Sept. 22 motion.
Guilbeau said one-on-one sessions with jurors would give prosecutors and defense attorneys leeway to ask one person detailed questions about the case without others hearing the answers and forming opinions.
Other records unsealed this week include motions by Fontenot to allow the jury to visit the crime scene during the trial and to let an out-of-state crime lab examine a partial print left in Fontenot’s truck the night of the shooting.
Fontenot told detectives he awoke to what sounded like locks on his truck being broken and that he shot at the tail lights of the truck to scare the boys he believed had broken into his truck. Rivault, Will Bellamy and the driver of the truck, Cole Kelley, had attended a Mardi Gras party near the home Fontenot shared with his mother and stepfather on Green Meadow Drive in south Lafayette. Kelley and Bellamy, both now 17, survived.
Fontenot is scheduled for trial March 16. He faces life in prison.