Judge orders documents in Seth Fontenot murder case opened to the public _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Seth Fontenot enters the Lafyette Parish Courthouse for a hearing in Lafayette in September.

The attorney for Seth Fontenot, the 20-year-old man accused of killing 15-year-old Austin Rivault and wounding two other teens in a 2013 shooting, has asked a judge to open court proceedings to the public and unseal records in the case.

Many documents in the high-profile first-degree murder case have been sealed from public view, and 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.

The request from Fontenot’s attorney this week followed a petition by The Acadiana Advocate and KATC Communications last month to intervene in the case for access to all sealed documents, transcripts of past closed court hearings and advanced notice of plans to close future hearings, arguing that blocking access “violates the clear mandate of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

A hearing at the 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette on the motion to intervene and on Fontenot’s request is set for Jan. 15.

In filings on Thursday, attorneys for the newspaper and television station cited several court rulings supporting the argument that sealing court records and closing court hearings should be done only when there is clear evidence that media coverage will endanger a defendant’s right to a fair trial, not just out of general concern that publicity might hurt the chances of seating an impartial jury.

The attorneys wrote there is no explanation in the court record of why certain documents have been sealed and the record “does not contain even a generic description” of what the sealed court hearings were about.

“The right of the public and the press to access criminal court proceedings and records is fundamental to our American democracy and supported by strong constitutional and public policy interests,” the attorneys wrote.

In correspondence with attorneys for The Acadiana Advocate and KATC in November, Rubin wrote that opening records in the case could attract publicity that could damage Fontenot’s right to a fair trial.

But Fontenot’s attorney, Thomas Guilbeau, wrote in court filings this week “that there are reasonable alternatives to closure that if implemented will adequately protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

Guilbeau is prevented from discussing his request because there has been a gag order in the case since 2013.

The defense attorney wrote in court filings that he consented to the gag order but thought the intent was to prevent attorneys, law enforcement officers and witnesses from discussing the case with the news media, not to seal the case record and keep the public and media out of court hearings.

“At no time did counsel for the defendant agree to closure of the case to the public,” Guilbeau stated.

Attorneys for the The Acadiana Advocate and KATC cited Guilbeau’s request in the filings on Thursday.

“Accordingly, the defendant clearly does not believe that closure of records or proceedings is necessary to protect his constitutional right to a fair trial in this matter and thus to do so on this purported basis is improper,” the attorneys wrote.

Guilbeau argued against any blanket order to place all court filings under seal, but the attorney wants to reserve his right to ask the judge to seal motions related to certain evidence, including requests for expert assistance, Fontenot’s statement to police and a video from the hospital of the juveniles who were shot.

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.