GONZALES — A state district judge ruled Monday that murder suspect Jacob Westbrook will be tried before an Ascension Parish jury despite legal blowback from a January news account that he had been raped in the parish jail in 2017, with the reaction to the story leading defense attorneys to push to move the trial elsewhere and to remove the prosecutors from the case.
Westbrook, who is 18, is facing a second-degree murder charge in the slaying of 18-year-old Todd “T.J.” Toups Jr. on Oct. 10, 2015. Westbrook was 16 at the time, but Judge Jason Verdigets has ruled that Westbrook should be tried as an adult. The new trial date is July 10.
Verdigets had originally delayed the trial, which was first set on Jan. 29, after an Advocate news account revealed Westbrook had sued the parish Sheriff's Office Jan. 12 over his rape in the parish jail in early 2017. The article appeared two to three days before the start of jury selection and identified him with the consent of his civil lawyer and parents.
Prosecutors then filed a motion for sanctions against Westbrook's civil and criminal defense attorneys and his parents for breaking a gag order, claiming they colluded with the media to taint the jury pool in the murder trial. The story featured comments from Westbrook's civil attorney, Aidan Reynolds, and Westbrook's father.
Criminal defense attorney Jarrett Ambeau noted Monday that a similar number of prospective jurors recalled the late January story about the rape suit as did about coverage two years ago that was less favorable to Westbrook. The court had rejected earlier defense attempts to move the trial over comments Sheriff Jeff Wiley made, reported in the news media, that Ambeau has challenged as “grossly inaccurate.”
Prosecutors have responded that it was Westbrook and the story on his lawsuit that created the grounds for the current request for change of venue and so the request should be denied.
Verdigets rejected the second attempt Monday to move the trial and questioned the appropriateness of the story's timing — two weeks after the suit was filed but right before trial — and wished he knew the reasoning for doing so.
Ambeau, while contending he did not violate the gag order, said his client has an absolute right to file suit, didn’t know the newspaper’s reasoning for running the story when it did but that the public has a right to know. Ambeau is co-counsel in the civil suit.
Publicity over the case has been a point of contention since its earliest days.
Wiley has said Westbrook hacked at Toups with a steak knife several times before the fatal stabbing during an argument at the home of Westbrook's girlfriend. Toups had come by to talk to the girlfriend's then 14-year-old stepsister about picking her up later to go to a homecoming dance.
Citing other witness statements, Ambeau has said Toups was the aggressor and lunged at Westbrook first, prompting Westbrook to stab once in self-defense.
In a separate motion Monday, Ambeau also challenged prosecutors' ability to be fair after their comments Jan. 29 questioning the veracity of Westbrook’s rape allegations. Prosecutors had noted that claims raised in the new lawsuit didn't match what Westbrook had said in an earlier medical evaluation, Ambeau said.
Ambeau claimed that prosecutors intended to use that information to impeach Westbrook's testimony at his criminal trial while other assistant district attorneys were prosecuting the two people who have been charged with raping Westbrook. Ambeau had argued that the combination of factors made the District Attorney’s Office unable to fairly handle Westbrook's second-degree murder case.
Verdigets said Monday he agreed prosecutors needed to remove themselves from either the rape case, in which Westbrook is the victim, or the second-degree murder case, in which Westbrook is the suspect. The District Attorney's Office was already in the process of recusing itself from the rape case by Jan. 29.
With the recusal, the judge said he was unconvinced Monday that prosecutors’ knowledge of both cases meant that they could not be fair.
Assistant District Attorney Joni Buquoi, one of the prosecutors who questioned Westbrook’s claims Jan. 29, told Verdigets that she didn’t find out about them until the news article on the civil suit appeared and then went back and read part of his medical report.
In the lawsuit, Westbrook claims deputies did not respond to his cries for help. Prosecutors have alleged in subsequent court papers that a medical report quotes Westbrook's saying of the rape that he been playing consensual “homosexual games.”
Buquoi said Monday that the best way for Westbrook to get a fair trial in Ascension Parish is for everyone to follow the gag order.