Nearly a year since two men shot up a Bourbon Street intersection in a melee that left a young Hammond woman dead and nine people injured, the case against the lone arrested suspect remains mired in legal wrangling over the refusal by Orleans Parish prosecutors to identify several witnesses to the bloody fracas.
A split panel of the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal sought this week to break the logjam, ruling that attorneys for accused shooter Trung Le can’t have the names of about 10 witnesses that authorities have fought to protect, citing concern for their safety.
But the pretrial jostling isn’t over. Defense attorney Martin Regan pledged Thursday to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“This goes back to a fundamental problem in the state of Louisiana. We are still trying cases by ambush,” Regan said. “A man could be facing life in jail, and he’s not entitled to know who’s going to be called as a witness. It’s fundamentally unfair.”
Regan has described his 21-year-old client as a hero who protected his friends and others from an aggressive assailant in the early morning of June 29. Authorities see it differently, casting Le as the instigator who opened fire on a street still crowded with revelers about 2:30 a.m.
Though authorities acknowledge that Le didn’t fire the .40-caliber bullet that killed 21-year-old Brittany Thomas, he stands accused of manslaughter in her death, as well as attempted murder for what police say was a shot he fired at the second, still-unidentified gunman. Whether that man was hit remains uncertain.
For months now, Regan has pleaded for the identities of witnesses whose names were redacted from police reports he’s received as part of the trial discovery process.
The case went up to the 4th Circuit and back down again for Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams to decide in private whether, as prosecutors argued, revealing those names might jeopardize their safety.
Williams ruled in every case that it would, and Regan returned to the 4th Circuit this week to appeal.
In a 2-1 decision, Judges Paul Bonin and Max Tobias found that Williams did not abuse his discretion by keeping the names secret. They acknowledged they were basing their decision largely on a transcript of Williams’ review, without access to specifics about the possible threat to each witness.
Judge Roland Belsome dissented, saying he saw no sign that the state “submitted a single piece of evidence” to support its claims that the mystery witnesses need protecting.
“Anecdotal argument based upon conjecture and speculation does not meet the minimum burden” of the law, Belsome wrote.
The case marks an early legal test of a 2014 state law requiring a closed-door hearing if defense attorneys challenge decisions by prosecutors to withhold witnesses’ names.
The requirement has met with groans from some prosecutors, who say it could hold up numerous criminal cases.
Regan called the majority’s opinion a bad precedent. “The ruling sets the bar at ground level,” he said. “All the state has to say, apparently, is that the witness says he’s scared.”
Regan said he can’t properly defend Le, who remains jailed in lieu of $250,000 bail, without doing his own interviews with witnesses. He has, however, interviewed some of them — namely, friends of Le who claim he saved their lives.
Le, of Belle Chasse, has picked up a new charge in jail after he was accused of punching a fellow inmate.
There are no signs that police are any closer to identifying the second shooter, who is seen in a blurry video of the confrontation that sent a small horde of partiers scrambling for safety.
In his majority opinion, Bonin said the new state law requires prosecutors to make a “prima facie” case for withholding witnesses’ names — a higher level of proof than probable cause. Still, Bonin said, the state must show only, by that standard, that a “causal relationship exists between the disclosure of identifying information of witnesses to an opposing party and the mere possibility that those witnesses’ safety will be impaired thereafter.”
A spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office declined to comment on the ruling, which came down late Wednesday.
No new trial date has been set for Le, who was indicted in August after being extradited from Mississippi.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.