An Orleans Parish prosecutor acknowledged Friday for the first time that Trung Le, the alleged first shooter in a June 29 melee on Bourbon Street, was not the person who fatally shot 21-year-old Hammond resident Brittany Thomas and that an attempted murder charge against him relates to his firing on a second, still unidentified shooter.
Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue also dismissed claims by Le’s attorney that the 21-year-old Belle Chasse man fired in self-defense at an intoxicated assailant who had raised a gun and cocked it at a group minding their own business on a corner in the 700 block of Bourbon. She insisted that Le, 21, sparked the melee by firing first on the other man.
The second man presumably fired in fear of his life, shooting Thomas in the head and injuring nine others, Rodrigue said at a bond reduction hearing for Le.
Retired Criminal District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg, who is presiding over the case in the absence of Judge Julian Parker, agreed Friday to reduce Le’s bond from $1.5 million to $250,000. The reduction came at the end of a hearing that started two weeks ago with testimony from several of Le’s friends who were with him that night.
One of them, Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti, testified that he was shot three times and that Le saved his life.
Winsberg quizzed Rodrigue, the daughter of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, about the rationale behind charges contained in an August grand jury indictment accusing Le of manslaughter in Thomas’ killing and the attempted second-degree murder of what the indictment describes as “an unknown black male.”
Whether Le struck the man with a bullet remains in doubt.
Thomas was struck in the head with a single .40-caliber bullet. A ballistics report shows nine .40-caliber shells were found at the scene of the 2:45 a.m. gunfight on a Sunday — an incident that prompted a cry for more police in the French Quarter and led Mayor Mitch Landrieu to ask for an emergency influx of state troopers.
Four shell casings found at the scene were from a 9mm handgun, the weapon that Le fired, according to his attorney, Martin Regan.
Rodrigue said the manslaughter count against Le stems from the fact that Thomas was shot and killed while Le was committing an aggravated assault by firing at the other shooter. Under state law, manslaughter can be defined as a homicide committed “without any intent to cause death or great bodily harm” when the death occurs while the offender is committing another felony.
“There’s been no dispute that Mr. Le fired first. Basically at the time he decides to pull his weapon and open fire, he commits the crime of aggravated assault,” Rodrigue said. “We have to assume, based on applying common sense, that (the other man) must be in deadly fear for him to fire in response.”
Armed with various videotapes that captured snippets of the melee on Bourbon and surrounding streets, Regan sought Friday to show, frame by frame, that the other man was wielding a gun as he walked down the street and approached Le and his friends, then raised his weapon before the gunfire erupted.
He pressed Sgt. Nick Gernon, the acting commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s Homicide Division, to acknowledge seeing the other man holding a gun and pointing it at the group with his right hand. Gernon refused, calling the images too blurry and saying he saw only what looked like a pair of beer bottles in the man’s left hand.
Winsberg eventually grew frustrated with Regan’s relentless push to prove his client acted in self-defense and also with his claims that authorities had withheld a marked-up videotape that witnesses for Le say they watched during police interviews.
Winsberg noted that another judge, retired Judge Dennis Waldron, already had allowed testimony from three of Le’s friends at a previous hearing. Winsberg said the question of whether Le acted in self-defense was for a jury to decide later.
In Regan’s telling, the second gunman prompted the altercation. Clearly intoxicated, Regan said, the man was walking down Bourbon Street, “mean-mugging” innocent bystanders — staring them down, itching for a fight — when he approached the group and scuffled with Justin Odom, a friend of Le’s who was an initial “person of interest” in the case but never was booked over the incident.
“I got a .40 for you,” the other man said before lifting his weapon and cocking it, according to the witnesses. Le then pulled out his own 9mm handgun and fired first, Regan acknowledged.
In pushing for the bond to remain at $1.5 million — where it was set after Le’s indictment — Rodrigue noted that Le has a criminal history that includes a marijuana conviction, a theft charge and unspecified Juvenile Court cases. She also noted that he fled to Mississippi and fought extradition after police arrested him there nearly a week after the shooting.
Regan urged Winsberg to set bail at no more than $50,000, commensurate with a charge of carrying a concealed firearm, and to consider Le’s financial straits. Le’s brother, 26-year-old Hai Le, testified that Le was making $7.25 to $8 an hour at a restaurant. Le’s parents sat in the courtroom throughout the hearing.
Should Le post his lowered bail, Winsberg ordered him to wear an electronic monitor.
Regan said later he was “pleased with the reduction but certainly not satisfied.” That Le shot in self-defense is “plain as the smile on my face,” Regan said, adding that prosecutors have no basis for claiming that Le provoked Thomas’ death and the shootings of nine others.
“There’s nothing to support that,” Regan said. “How do you hold him responsible for taking the life of a woman he didn’t shoot?”
Regan said he wasn’t sure Le could make the lower bail, but he urged “members of the Vietnamese community” to step forward.
Winsberg set Oct. 10 for the next court date in the case.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.