Neither of the two Baton Rouge men booked on second-degree murder counts in the April 10 shooting deaths of 19-year-old Southern University students Annette January and Lashuntae Benton were indicted on murder charges Wednesday, sending East Baton Rouge Parish's chief prosecutor back to the drawing board, pleading for the public's help in solving the crime.
A parish grand jury chose to neither indict nor clear Ernest Bernard Felton, 23, on two counts each of second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon, and one count each of attempted second-degree murder and obstruction of justice.
Felton, who played football at Southern for a season, is the man police said shot and killed January, a freshman, and Benton, a sophomore, outside The Cottages apartment complex on Ben Hur Road and wounded Brandon Henderson, the 25-year-old man who has admitted firing the first shots early that April morning.
The grand jury pretermitted the charges against Felton, meaning the panel took no action against him. It also means prosecutors can go back to the grand jury if more evidence becomes available.
The grand jury cleared Henderson on two counts of second-degree murder but did charge him with aggravated assault with a firearm.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office has no plans at this stage to charge Felton with a lesser crime.
Moore said the case is a complicated one with differing accounts from many young witnesses.
"We presented everything available to the grand jury," he said. "At the end of the day they determined there was not enough to go forward on a murder charge."
Lake Charles lawyer Todd Clemons, who represents Benton's mother, Theresa Tillman, said Moore has given him his word that his office will do everything it can to see that the case is thoroughly investigated.
"I certainly understand this is a very, very complicated case and that the District Attorney's Office and the Baton Rouge Police Department are going to do everything they need to do to see that this case is brought to justice," Clemons said.
"This is not the final outcome," he added, referring to the grand jury's authority to continue to investigate. "This is just one decision at this particular point, but we're still optimistic that the justice system will prevail in the end and that everyone responsible will be held accountable for their deaths."
Moore asked anyone with information to contact Crime Stoppers, the Baton Rouge Police Department or his office.
Felton's attorneys, Tommy Damico and former prosecutor Brent Stockstill, said they will seek to have their client released from jail by Friday. He has been held for more than four months on $500,000-plus bail.
"It's not like we're surprised," Damico said of the grand jury's decision not to indict Felton. "We certainly believed this was going to be the outcome."
Damico and Stockstill said Felton was defending himself from Henderson.
"This was clearly the proper result," Stockstill said of the grand jury's action.
"They must have agreed with our theory of self-defense," Damico added.
Henderson's attorney, Neal Wilkinson, said he is pleased his client was not indicted on murder charges but disappointed the grand jury charged him with aggravated assault with a firearm, which if convicted carries a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars.
Wilkinson said Henderson found himself in a "volatile situation" when Felton was waving a gun. Henderson, he said, acted in self-defense.
"He was wounded twice," Wilkinson noted. "We have some indication he was defending his life."
Wilkinson said Henderson is now entitled to a "huge reduction" of his $500,000-plus bail now that the murder counts have been eliminated.
Felton and Henderson are scheduled to appear Friday in state District Judge Beau Higginbotham's courtroom.
Police have said Henderson admitted firing the first shots, into the air, in a drive-by shooting outside The Cottages, but they claim the bullets fired in return by Felton killed innocent bystanders January and Benton and wounded Henderson.
The Cottages is popular with LSU and Southern students. January and Benton were among other young people who had been at a party there during that early April morning.
Henderson told police his brother, Anthony Dewayne Henderson, 22, had been involved in a fistfight with a group of people that morning outside the apartment complex. Brandon Henderson drove to the complex to meet up with his brother and later drove up to a crowd with his brother inside the vehicle, a police report states.
After the initial round of gunfire initiated by Brandon Henderson, he drove around a curve and into a dead end in the parking lot. Felton walked toward the dead end and waited for Brandon Henderson to return, the report alleges. Brandon Henderson turned around and drove out of the parking lot in an effort to flee, but Felton, in a second volley of gunfire, shot at the car and struck January and Benton, the report says.
Recorded phone calls Felton made from Parish Prison indicate he admitted firing his gun at the scene and stated the gun was not registered, according to the report. More than two dozen Hornady brand 9 mm Luger shell casings were found at the scene, all fired from the same Glock handgun. Police found an empty box of Hornady 9 mm Luger bullets in Felton's bedroom, the report notes.
Anthony Henderson was arrested in Texas earlier this month and was extradited last week to Baton Rouge on unrelated drug charges. He is wanted for questioning in the April 10 double-murder.
Southern suspended Felton the day after the shooting from being a part-time student at the school. Henderson attended the university from 2009 to 2014 but did not graduate.
January, a track and field athlete, was a freshman management major from Gary, Indiana. Benton, who was a sophomore studying therapeutic recreation and leisure, had worked as a volunteer student athletic trainer at Southern.
The women's families accepted posthumously degrees granted to the students by the university in May.