A rare court hearing that featured testimony from two defense lawyers and a prosecutor resulted Monday in one Baton Rouge state judge disqualifying another from sentencing a St. Landry Parish man convicted of driving drunk in a fiery 2011 interstate crash near Highland Road that killed five Ascension Parish residents.
District Judge Don Johnson granted David Leger’s recusal motion after Leger’s new attorney, Jim Boren, argued that District Judge Trudy White either is biased against Leger or has displayed an appearance of impropriety in his case.
Johnson gave prosecutors until Nov. 24 to ask a state appellate court to review his decision. East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said afterward his office will take the matter to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.
If the ruling is affirmed, Johnson said, the sentencing will be randomly assigned to another 19th JDC criminal judge, excluding himself.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury found Leger, 32, of Palmetto, guilty in July on five counts of vehicular homicide, but the 1st Circuit halted his Oct. 16 sentencing and ordered Leger’s recusal motion — which White denied that same day — randomly allotted to a 19th Judicial District Court judge other than White, who presided over Leger’s trial.
White convicted Leger’s co-defendant, Kelsye Hall, on five counts of negligent homicide last year and sentenced the 25-year-old Baton Rouge woman to two years in prison. She was released in July but remains on probation for five years.
Hall’s attorney, state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, who unsuccessfully challenged White in the Nov. 4 election, testified Monday that White — just moments after finding Hall guilty — asked him and prosecutor Ron Gathe why Leger wasn’t tried before Hall.
“She said, ‘I could have gotten a piece of flesh,’ ” Williams recalled the judge saying in her chambers about Leger.
Gathe testified he heard White make no such statement and added he did not believe the judge had any preconceived notions about Leger’s guilt or innocence leading up to his trial.
Leger’s former attorney, Tommy Damico, testified that White seemed eager to sentence Leger before the Nov. 4 election in which Williams and fellow Baton Rouge lawyer Gideon Carter III were challenging her.
“She seemed to think this case had a bearing on the election because her opponent was involved in this case,” Damico said. “She certainly indicated that she needed this done before the election.”
Gathe said White’s only concern was that if Williams won the Nov. 4 election and Leger still had not been sentenced, Williams would have been forced to recuse himself because he represented Hall.
White defeated both challengers in the primary, getting 59 percent of the vote to Williams’ 34 percent and Carter’s 7 percent.
Boren argued to Johnson that White’s inquiry about why prosecutors didn’t try Leger first amounted to “an improper conversation.” Boren also told Johnson that White was “extremely conscious” that Williams was running against her.
“We were in a very uncomfortable place,” Boren said after the hearing.
Boren stressed inside the courtroom that the recusal motion was not an indictment of White as a judge or person but focused solely on a particular case.
Prosecutor William Jordan argued White had every right to try to move her docket in a judicially efficient manner.
Co-workers Effie Fontenot, 29, and Kimberly Stagg, 19, both of Prairieville, and Fontenot’s children, Austin Fontenot, 3, Hunter Johnson, 7, and Keagan Fontenot, 11, were killed in the March 13, 2011, crash on Interstate 10.
Authorities and witnesses have said Leger and Hall were engaged in a reckless and high-speed game of “cat and mouse” or road rage on I-10 West when Leger’s pickup spun out of control, crossed the grassy median and collided head-on with a car driven by Effie Fontenot on I-10 east between the Highland Road exit and the Ascension Parish line.
State Police said Leger was intoxicated at the time.
Leger faces a sentence of five to 30 years in prison on each vehicular homicide count.
A vehicular homicide charge involves intoxication; a negligent homicide charge does not.