State district Judge Kristian Earles caught many off guard when he granted teenage murder suspect Seth Fontenot’s request to look into the backgrounds of the Lafayette Parish grand jury that indicted him.
In Louisiana, adults who’ve been convicted of a felony are barred from sitting on a grand jury. Before they’re seated for one-year terms, prospective grand jurors are vetted by a magistrate judge who relies on the citizens to tell the truth on a series of questions.
“It’s very rare,” E. Pete Adams, executive directors of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, said about conducting grand juror background checks. “I’ve not heard of it before. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but I’ve not heard of it before.”
Adams said Fontenot’s attorney, Tommy Guilbeau, must have shown the judge something that at least hinted that one or more of the grand jurors might have lied about a criminal past.
Earles’ ruling Aug. 29 is a change from his decision in March that denied the request.
Guilbeau argued in the March and August hearings that in order to be sure there was no felon on the grand jury that had charged his client, the names of the jurors would have to be run through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. Guilbeau said the NCIC can spot felons who had been convicted in other states.
“If we have someone convicted of child molestation in Tennessee 20 years ago, you think he should be allowed to serve on a Louisiana grand jury?” Guilbeau said recently.
“These are the same people who indict people for first-degree murder,” Guilbeau said. “It’s the most serious job any citizen can ever ask for.”
Guilbeau qualified his statement, saying he was not talking specifically about Fontenot’s case because it would go against Earles’ order: In April, at the urging of prosecutor Mark Garber, Earles issued a gag order barring those closely involved in Fontenot’s case from speaking about it to the news media until after the trial, which is tentatively scheduled to begin Nov. 12.
Fontenot was indicted by the grand jury in the January killing of Austin Rivault and wounding of two other 15-year-olds by shooting at the three boys as they fled in a truck driving away from Fontenot’s south Lafayette home. Fontenot told Lafayette detectives that he fired the shots to scare the boys.
Fontenot was indicted on an afternoon in February by grand jurors who had convened in a quickly called session to hear the case, deciding to level the most serious charges possible: one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.
There’s no word yet on whether any current grand jurors were revealed on the NCIC database as felons. If Earles has the results, he hasn’t entered them into the public record.
Prosecutors aren’t talking, and Guilbeau and sheriff’s officials aren’t either, so it’s unclear if they even know the NCIC results.
“It’ll play out,” said Adams, with the District Attorney’s Association. “Either they will have a record or they won’t.”
Guilbeau, again speaking in the abstract, said he it doesn’t matter whether felony background checks will make more people try to avoid serving.
“You know, I don’t care,” he said. “It’s what the law provides, that we have people who are not felons, who have not been prosecuted.”
Billy Gunn covers law enforcement and criminal justice for The Advocate’s Acadiana bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.