Defense attorney Martin Regan is pulling out all the stops as a Jan. 11 trial date approaches for accused Bourbon Street mass shooter Trung Le.
Regan has scoured the French Quarter in search of clues about the other, still unknown gunman seen in a video approaching Le and his friends in the early morning of June 29, 2014, before bullets tore through the crowd about 2:45 a.m. in the 700 block of Bourbon.
Regan told an Orleans Parish judge Tuesday he even bought the same clothes the man seemed to be wearing — a black shirt and “multicolored checkered pants” — so he could show them around in hopes of finding out where the man may have worked.
And he’s repeatedly appealed to higher courts to force District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to turn over the names and addresses of all the known witnesses to a melee that claimed 10 victims, including 21-year-old Brittany Thomas, of Hammond, who died from a single gunshot wound to the back of her head.
Regan made the same demand Tuesday, insisting that he needs to know the names of every witness — not just those prosecutors plan to call to the stand — and quickly, if he is to do his job right.
Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams largely rebuffed him, ordering Cannizzaro’s office only to reveal the identities of its witnesses by Jan. 6, five days before jury selection is to start. In response, Regan said he plans to lodge a federal court challenge to the decision while also seeking to have Williams removed from the case.
Regan argued that the late disclosure of witnesses’ names and addresses violates Le’s constitutional right to due process and effective assistance of counsel.
“If we don’t get relief at the state court level, we will go to federal court,” Regan said afterward. “I’ve knocked on doors, gone up and down the street. I cannot effectively represent someone if I can’t get the witnesses to call to the witness stand. This concept that we’re not entitled to know who saw what happened, and that we’re given five days to find people from all over the world, is ridiculous.”
Le, 22, of Belle Chasse, faces charges of attempted second-degree murder and manslaughter. The former count relates to his firing at the other shooter. The manslaughter count apparently alleges that Le’s actions resulted in the death of Thomas, even though he’s not accused of shooting her.
Le has argued self-defense, backed by friends in his group that morning who claim he heroically fended off an addled, gun-wielding instigator who was “mean-mugging” random people on the street.
One of those friends, Robert Benvenuti, was shot twice in the buttocks.
According to Regan, the other shooter approached Le’s group of friends, said “I got a .40 (caliber) for you” and raised a gun from underneath his arm before bullets flew. One witness who was with Le told a detective, however, that the shooting was over a drug deal that had gone bad, according to a police report.
The only witnesses’ names that are not blacked out in the police report that authorities turned over to Regan are those of Le’s friends. Regan said he wants the names and addresses of everyone authorities know about who saw the melee.
“I don’t expect the state to call a witness that says, as I think the witness should say, that ‘I was standing there and the unknown shooter says, “I got a .40 caliber for you” ’ as he points a gun in the face of my client and the friends who were standing there,” Regan said in court Tuesday.
“It would be extremely valuable as a defense attorney to find somebody who heard him say that, other than the people who were standing with my client. There were hundreds of people there at the scene in the French Quarter.”
Louisiana law allows the state to withhold witnesses’ identities until just before trial if a judge finds their safety might be endangered. Regan argues that given the diverse crowd on Bourbon Street that morning, he needs more time to track down any witnesses living in far-flung regions.
He cited a similar case involving a New Orleans police officer accused of shooting and injuring two people on the Bacchus parade route in 1981. In that case, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the trial judge didn’t abuse his discretion by ordering the state to disclose its actual and potential witnesses.
Still, in that decision and others, appeals courts have largely deferred to local judges.
Under a state law that went into effect last year, Regan earlier demanded a closed-door hearing on claims by Cannizzaro’s office that it is withholding the names in the Bourbon Street shooting out of fear for their safety. But after the hearing, Williams found the DA’s arguments warranted keeping the identities under wraps, and higher courts upheld that ruling.
Williams on Tuesday gave Regan 24 hours to appeal his order for Cannizzaro’s office to turn over the information by Jan. 6, while insisting he would grant no further delays in the case.
After Williams had ruled on several issues regarding evidence in the case, Regan continued to argue his position.
“I didn’t listen to the defense because I don’t need to listen to the defense. I ruled on them,” Williams said, appearing agitated. “Do what you have to do.”
Le has pleaded not guilty. After the shooting, he fled to Mississippi, where he was arrested at a home outside Gulfport and extradited to Louisiana.
He also faces a simple battery charge, accused of punching a fellow Orleans Parish inmate several times.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.