Trung Le, the 22-year-old Belle Chasse man who fired the first four bullets in a 15-shot melee on Bourbon Street in 2014 that left a Hammond woman dead and nine others with gunshot wounds, was found guilty of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter by an Orleans Parish jury Friday night.
The jury of six men and six women began deliberating at 7:20 p.m. and reported its verdict two hours later, capping a weeklong trial in which Le never took the witness stand, leaving it to his lawyer to argue that he fired in self-defense.
The vote on the attempted manslaughter count was 12-0. One juror dissented on the manslaughter count.
The charge of manslaughter was based on the argument that Le committed an aggravated battery that led to the killing of 21-year-old nursing student Brittany Thomas. Le also was charged with attempted murder for firing on a still-unidentified second shooter. The jury convicted him of the lesser crime of attempted manslaughter on that count.
Le stood quietly, jaw clenched after Criminal District Judge Byron C. Williams read the verdicts, while his mother sat bawling behind him in the gallery.
Also in tears were several victims of the shooting spree, who sat huddled together across the aisle in the small attic courtroom.
Thomas’ mother, Mariko Thomas, appeared overwhelmed by the verdict as she left the courthouse.
“Now my baby can rest in peace,” she cried, later adding that she struggled with her emotions as the trial and Le’s self-defense argument wore on.
Williams scheduled a Feb. 18 sentencing date for Le, who faces a minimum of 20 years in prison.
His attorney, Martin Regan, called no witnesses but spoke to the jury for two hours, 40 minutes on Friday, saying Le fired only after a crazed gunman approached his group of West Bank friends at 2:45 a.m. on June 29, 2014; said, “I got that .40 for you”; stepped back; and raised a silver handgun.
The other man, dressed in chef’s pants and a Boston Red Sox cap, then fired 11 rounds from what police determined was, in fact, a .40-caliber handgun.
Two of Le’s friends, admitted French Quarter weekend drug dealers Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti and Justin Odom, stood by that account of what happened when prosecutors called them to testify.
Odom had described the gun and the alleged threat even before ballistics tests identified the other shooter’s weapon, and Regan argued that fact confirmed Odom’s story that the man flashed the gun before Le fired.
“Had Le not had a gun, was there anything that was going to stop that man?” Regan asked. He described the second shooter to the jury as an “out-of-control, mentally ill, irresponsible human being. Don’t visit his sins on my client, who saved (his friends’) lives.” Regan also suggested that one of Le’s shots struck the other man, forcing his shots downward and saving others in the crowd.
The shootout sent packs of early-morning revelers scrambling for cover and severely injured several of them. Based on where the victims stood at the time, prosecutors alleged that Le’s four bullets struck five people, including an Australian woman, Amy Matthews, who was shot in the mouth, fracturing her jaw and costing her more than half her teeth.
“Can I say awesome?!” Matthews exclaimed following the verdict. “It’s justice for every one of the victims for sure.”
Prosecutors Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue and Tiffany Tucker dismissed Le’s self-defense theory as a desperate last-ditch plea, repeatedly noting that Le and Odom picked up a shotgun and fled to Mississippi after the shooting, while Le and Benvenuti later refused to cooperate with authorities.
In her closing argument, Rodrigue repeated that the shootout related to an incident earlier that night, when a man had approached Odom and flashed a silver gun in a robbery that Odom described on the witness stand as a failed attempt to steal his marijuana under the ruse of a sale.
Rodrigue told the jury that Odom and his friends called Le and told him to bring his 9mm handgun, which was never recovered, to Bourbon Street. There, she said, they spotted the would-be robber in the 700 block of Bourbon. Odom locked eyes with the man and said something to instigate a confrontation and the gunfight, Rodrigue said. Le was “the enforcer,” she said.
“If somebody walks up to somebody and says, ‘I got that .40 for you,’ they’re referring to a specific thing. That’s exactly what they knew was coming, which is why they called Trung Le out there, because he’s going to pre-empt it. He’s going to open fire,” Rodrigue said.
Rodrigue said the two shooters were more than 20 feet apart, based on where police found groupings of shell casings, undermining the self-defense argument.
“Trung Le didn’t have a right to pull out a gun and fire at him because the man did not provoke him. He had tried to walk away from a scenario that he was drawn into,” Rodrigue said.
As for the second shooter, who sprayed bullets and fired the shot that fatally wounded Thomas, “Nobody’s saying he’s a saint in this scenario, but he’s also not the aggressor,” the prosecutor said.
Regan painted a very different picture over four days of testimony, repeatedly describing the other shooter as “the Bourbon Street terrorist.”
At the heart of the case was a grainy overhead video showing the second man turn and confront Odom, then step away before raising his arm toward them. Rodrigue argued that the video clearly showed the man held no gun.
Regan argued that it had to be a gun, given Le’s reaction, or alternatively that Le thought he saw a gun and feared for his life and those of his friends.
The minimum 20-year sentence is a result of an enhancement under Louisiana law for the discharge of a firearm.
“Glad this is over,” said Shawn Dalton, who was struck in the chest from a bullet that he said was blunted by the 32-oz frozen daiquiri he held,
Nina Jasper, whose daughter, Sharome Rudolph, took a bullet that pierced her ankle, said the verdict meant justice, but she wanted more.
“They just need to find the unknown shooter and it’ll be total justice,” she said.
During the trial, police insisted that they still have not identified that man, who stood firing away from the middle of Bourbon Street, spraying bullets, after Le had shot and run.
After the verdict, Regan lamented the outcome of his long legal fight to secure from the state the names of witnesses who may have seen the other shooter acting out or wielding a gun as he ambled down Bourbon, or who saw the gunfire.
In the end, the judge ordered the state to turn over 20-odd names less than five days before the start of trial. Regan insisted afterward that he would continue looking for witnesses.
“If you want a fair trial you need a chance for attorneys to interview witnesses,” he said. “I cannot put on an effective defense without witnesses.”
Regan also defended the decision not to have Le take the witness stand, saying it “was based on the videos, which were the best evidence. I think the videos cleared our client. They told the whole story.”
The jury, which returned early on in its deliberations to review one video for about 20 minutes, found enough to convict Le as charged on the manslaughter count for Thomas’ death, and a lesser attempted manslaughter count for firing on the unknown man.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said he was gratified by the verdict and saw it as a statement by the jury about intolerance for “individuals who come into this city from other places and attempt to sell their drugs in the French Quarter and then call in an enforcer to make sure they’re able to sell their narcotics without any problems.”
Cannizzaro also credited the surviving shooting victims for sticking with the case and traveling in from various states and Australia to assist prosecutors.
“I’m very happy because they all stayed with us. They sort of formed a bond and a unity that exists between them now, and I think it’s something that’s going to last for a very long time,” he said. “Probably for the rest of their lives.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 15 to correctly state the charges on which Le was convicted.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.