A lively debate over the legality of shooting in self-defense in the middle of a crowded street broke out among prospective Orleans Parish jurors on Monday during jury selection in the trial of accused Bourbon Street gunman Trung Le.
The 22-year-old Belle Chasse resident faces manslaughter, attempted second-degree murder and obstruction of justice charges from a June 29, 2014, gunfight in which a young Hammond woman was fatally shot and nine others were wounded in the early morning hours along New Orleans’ most notorious party strip.
A jury was picked by 4 p.m. Monday, and Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams set opening statements for 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Le is suspected of pulling out a handgun and firing the first shot at another, still unknown man at 2:45 a.m. in the 700 block of Bourbon, sending partiers scrambling for cover as the other man fired away with a .40-caliber handgun. The shootout rattled residents and cast a summertime pall on the city just as a wave of visitors began arriving for the annual Essence Festival.
Who, if anyone, was struck by bullets fired by Le remains in doubt. Prosecutors acknowledge that he is not suspected of firing the shot that struck 21-year-old Brittany Thomas, who died days later from a single bullet to her head.
Le and friends who were with him claim he fired in self-defense after a stranger walking down the street decided to pick a fight and pull a gun on them.
Le’s attorney, Martin Regan, claims the other man told the group, “I got a .40 for you,” then reached for a gun under his arm and raised it before Le fired. Regan is expected to rely heavily on footage from a distantly shot video of the incident, seeking to show that Le was provoked into firing to protect himself and his friends.
Some prospective jurors were suspicious of the idea that someone in Le’s position shouldn’t be held accountable even if he fired in self-defense, after Regan presented them with a scenario substituting a Mardi Gras parade route for Bourbon Street.
“I feel both of them are responsible. Someone is still dead because of their bad shot,” one prospective juror said.
“If the two persons started the trouble, they shooting at each other, they both guilty. I don’t see the self-defense. It’s confusing me,” one possible juror said.
Others wanted more details: Where was the other shooter’s gun before the bullets flew? Did the one who claimed self-defense ever take shooting lessons?
A third possible juror homed in on a scenario in which a shooter claiming self-defense hits an innocent bystander with an errant bullet. “I’m still responsible. I would hope somebody would find me guilty,” she said.
“Did your momma teach you when you were growing up to bring a gun to a Mardi Gras parade?” a fourth prospective juror said. “There’s got to be some sort of a personal responsibility for all of this. Why would you even leave your house with that?”
Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue told one group in the jury pool that the manslaughter charge against Le relates to his committing another crime — carrying a concealed weapon, aggravated battery or aggravated assault — during the dispute that ended with Thomas mortally wounded.
The attempted murder charge relates to Le’s firing on an “unknown black male” — presumably the other shooter, though it’s uncertain whether that man was hit. Nor is it clear whether Le’s bullets hit anyone else.
The shooting spree that morning prompted a cry from Mayor Mitch Landrieu for more state troopers to bolster law-enforcement presence in the French Quarter amid the New Orleans Police Department’s enduring manpower shortfall.
That extra State Police presence is now guaranteed for years, thanks to a 1/4-cent sales tax increase that French Quarter voters passed last year. But it wasn’t there before the shooting spree, and the police failure to identify or arrest the other shooter figures to color a trial that is expected to run through the week.
Le was captured in Mississippi within a week of the shooting. Friends who were with him on Bourbon Street, including Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti, who was shot repeatedly in the buttocks, have declared Le a hero for defending them against what they describe as an addled aggressor.
Some in Le’s group were high on marijuana that night, according to prior court testimony, adding another wrinkle for the jury to consider.
At the judge’s request, Le stood and introduced himself to the jury pool Monday morning, having traded orange jail scrubs for a vanilla knit sweater over a crisp white dress shirt.
He has been jailed since his arrest in lieu of $250,000 bail.
According to Regan, the other man with a gun on Bourbon that morning backed away after showing his weapon to the group, but only to gain clearance before firing.
That was enough to hang up another prospective juror.
“If they gonna show me the gun and back away 8-10 feet,” she said, “why would I be standing there in the street and not running?”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.