Amid defense claims that a judge is using the high-profile case to campaign for re-election, an appeals court halted Thursday’s sentencing of a man convicted of being drunk when he caused a fiery crash that killed five people during what prosecutors described as a cat-and-mouse chase with another driver on Interstate 10.
David Leger’s attorney, Jim Boren, filed a motion at the start of Thursday’s hearing to recuse — or disqualify — state District Judge Trudy White from sentencing Leger on five counts of vehicular homicide.
Boren argued that the motion had to be randomly assigned to another 19th Judicial District Court judge for a hearing, but White refused and denied the motion outright, saying she had done nothing improper. She also accused one of her election opponents, state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, of playing politics in the case.
The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal later in the day halted the sentencing hearing, saying the motion to recuse must be assigned to another judge for a hearing to determine whether White or some other judge will sentence Leger.
“He knows that he did something wrong and should be held accountable,” Boren said of Leger, adding that Leger is grief-stricken and sad for the victims’ families.
Williams represents Leger’s co-defendant, Kelsye Hall, whom White convicted last year on five counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in prison.
In the recusal motion, Boren stated he interviewed Williams last Friday and was told that White — in a conversation with Williams and East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Ron Gathe — had questioned why prosecutors tried Hall before Leger and allegedly said that she wanted to “fry” Leger.
“To learn the information, I must say it was shocking,” Boren told the judge Thursday.
Gathe said he recalled nothing of the sort.
“I do dispute all of what is said in these allegations,” White said, adding she had no improper conversations in either Hall’s or Leger’s cases.
The judge noted that one of the allegations is coming from Williams, one of her election opponents. Lawyer Gideon Carter III also is a candidate seeking White’s position.
“Is it true or is it politics?” White asked rhetorically of the recusal motion’s accusations. “I don’t play politics. I am just absolutely shocked at these allegations. I know in my heart I’m fair and objective.”
In a loud voice, Boren told the judge: “This case is driven by the Nov. 4 election date.”
“I just don’t understand the connection between this and the election,” the judge replied in a calm voice, saying she did not schedule Leger’s sentencing with the election in mind. She did note that her term expires Dec. 31.
White accused Williams of attempting to “assassinate and crucify me.”
Williams said after the hearing that he had nothing to gain by delaying the sentencing.
“Why would I want to stop the sentencing of the person who I think is the guilty party?” Williams said of Leger. “I have nothing to get out of him being delayed.”
A jury convicted Leger, 32, of Palmetto, in July in the deaths of coworkers Effie Fontenot, 29, and Kimberly Stagg, 19, both of Prairieville, and Fontenot’s children, Austin Fontenot, 3, Hunter Johnson, 7, and Keagan Fontenot, 11, on March 13, 2011.
Authorities and witnesses have said Leger and Hall, 25, of Baton Rouge, 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 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.
Hall was released from jail in July but remains on probation for five years.
A vehicular homicide charge involves intoxication; a negligent homicide charge does not.