Kimberly Stagg’s mother threw up her hands in disgust Friday after a state judge ordered a new trial for the St. Landry Parish man convicted last year of driving drunk in a horrific 2011 interstate crash in Baton Rouge that killed the 19-year-old Stagg, a co-worker and that woman’s three young boys.
State District Judge Chip Moore ruled Friday that the jury’s verdict in David Leger’s vehicular homicide case was proper and he denied a defense motion for post-trial acquittal, but the judge found that Leger’s appellate rights were compromised because a bench conference during the trial was not recorded.
It was during that conference that Leger’s former attorney, Tommy Damico, argued for a particular jury instruction on the definition of vehicular homicide, particularly the requirement that the alcohol impairment played a part in causing the fatal crash, but his request was denied.
“There has to be a direct connection between the alcohol and the accident,” said Jim Boren, who now represents Leger, shortly after Friday’s ruling.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III pledged to appeal the judge’s ruling. Leger was convicted in the crash that killed Stagg, Effie Fontenot and Fontenot’s children — who ranged in age from 3 to 11.
“I feel really bad for the families,” Hillar Moore said outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
Stagg’s mother, Karen Stagg, and Fontenot’s parents, Gary and Susan Fontenot, chose not to speak after the ruling.
Leger, 32, of Palmetto, was unanimously convicted by a jury in July on five counts of vehicular homicide and has been awaiting sentencing. His co-defendant, Kelsye Hall, 25, of Baton Rouge, was found guilty by state District Judge Trudy White on five counts of negligent homicide in 2013 and sentenced to two years in prison.
Vehicular homicide involves intoxication. Negligent homicide does not. Hall was not impaired.
Chip Moore noted that Damico made that very argument to the jury, and the panel convicted Leger of vehicular homicide. But the judge said the failure to preserve the bench conference for appellate review demanded that Leger be tried again.
Despite the judge’s conclusion, the parish’s chief prosecutor said he’s confident the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal will find there is no need for a new trial.
“We expect a different outcome at the next level,” Hillar Moore said. “We’re confident of our case still. We’re not going away.”
Told of the district attorney’s remarks, Boren quipped, “The prosecution always expects a different outcome at the next level.”
Boren likewise expressed confidence, saying, “It’s possible a jury could find him not guilty.”
Leger’s blood-alcohol content, according to State Police, was 0.10 percent about three hours after the March 13, 2011, crash on Interstate 10 East between the Highland Road exit and Bluff Road overpass. In Louisiana, a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving.
In November, state District Judge Don Johnson disqualified White from sentencing Leger after Boren argued that White was biased against Leger or had displayed an appearance of impropriety in the case. Boren said White demonstrated at Hall’s sentencing hearing that she already had determined Leger was drunk and guilty — well before his trial.
In his ruling Friday, Chip Moore said “ample evidence” was presented to the jury that Leger’s actions were influenced by alcohol.
Leger and Hall, according to authorities and witnesses, were engaged in a reckless and high-speed game of “cat and mouse” or road rage on Interstate 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.
Killed in the fiery crash were Fontenot, 29, and Stagg, both of Prairieville, and Fontenot’s three sons, Austin Fontenot, 3, Hunter Johnson, 7, and Keagan Fontenot, 11.
Boren said Leger grieves for the victims and their families every day.
Hall, who testified at Leger’s trial but not her own, was released in July. She remains on probation.
Vehicular homicide carries a penalty of five to 30 years in prison. Negligent homicide is punishable by up to five years in prison.