Trung Le, the man who fired the first four bullets in a fatal shootout on Bourbon Street nearly two years ago, was sentenced Monday to serve 60 years in prison, the maximum he could have received.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams handed down the sentence three months after a jury rejected Le’s claim of self-defense in a melee that killed 21-year-old Hammond nursing student Brittany Thomas and injured nine others.
Williams sentenced Le, 22, of Belle Chasse, to 40 years on a charge of manslaughter after the jury found that he had provoked the gunfire that ultimately killed Thomas, even though she was hit by a second, still-unidentified shooter.
The judge also handed Le the maximum 20 years on an attempted manslaughter count for firing on the other gunman in the 700 block of Bourbon Street, sending scores of revelers scrambling in the early morning hours of June 29, 2014.
Williams ordered the sentences to run consecutively.
The judge dismissed the idea, advanced by prosecutors, that Le was a “hit man.” But he told Le he was lucky he wasn’t facing a mandatory life prison term on a murder charge.
Le had arrived in the French Quarter with a gun the night of the shooting, called there by friends after one of them, Justin Odom, had been robbed of his marijuana stash.
“You dodged the proverbial bullet. Thank God more victims were not shot or killed,” Williams said. “Your actions were horrific, callous and calculated. Especially when you decided to travel from the West Bank across the river with a gun in your possession to allegedly protect or assist your friends by shooting your gun in a packed street in the French Quarter.”
He described Le’s self-defense claim as “no better than a drowning man grabbing for a straw” and said he displayed “a reckless disregard for public safety,” likening Le’s actions to “someone shooting in a crowded theater or shooting a gun in a crowded parade.”
Prior to the sentence, Le’s attorney, Martin Regan, pleaded for leniency, revisiting his argument that Le shot only to protect his friends from an addled, gun-wielding assailant who had singled out the group of West Bankers standing on the corner.
“His intentions were good,” Regan argued Monday.
Regan presented photos to claim again that the other man, wearing a chef’s outfit and ballcap, had raised a .40-caliber handgun at the group before Le stepped forward and fired four shots. The other man responded by spraying 11 bullets through the crowd.
Prosecutors had argued there was no evidence the other man raised a gun before Le fired and that the object in his hand was a beer bottle.
“It’s either a handgun or a beer bottle that shoots,” Regan scoffed at a hearing last week at which Williams denied Le a new trial. Regan insisted the video showed the other man raising his gun after telling the group, “I got that .40 for you.”
“Was (Le) supposed to ask him, ‘When are you going to pull the trigger?’ ” Regan said. Le “is a bad shot. But one thing’s for sure, he wasn’t shooting the gun randomly everywhere in the world.”
The other shooter “just unloaded his gun in both directions, not caring about who he hit or what he hit,” Regan said.
Le’s friends, who admitted selling drugs in the French Quarter on weekends, insisted that Le stepped forward heroically and fired only to protect them after the other man approached the group with a gun tucked under his arm. One of them, Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti, was shot in the buttocks during the gunfight.
Most of the bullets fired in the melee passed through the victims, making it difficult to determine who was shot by whom. But based on where they stood, or ran, prosecutors argued that Le’s four bullets hit five people — though not Thomas.
Among them, prosecutors claimed, was an Australian woman, Amy Matthews, who was shot in the mouth; her jaw was fractured and she lost more than half her teeth.
Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue on Monday read a letter from Matthews, describing the reconstruction of her mouth and her mental anguish, and asking Williams to throw the book at Le.
“This event has changed how I see the world, people and myself,” Matthews wrote. “I stopped trusting in the world. I didn’t leave the house; otherwise I’d have a panic attack. I contemplated suicide more than once. I will never say I hate him, because I don’t know him. But I hate what he did to myself and the nine other victims. I didn’t see any remorse.”
Regan argued last week that it couldn’t have been Le’s bullet that struck Matthews, because by the time she was shot, Le was running with the rest of the crowd.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement Monday saying “justice has been served” with the 60-year sentence for Le, who still faces a separate charge over a jailhouse fight following his arrest.
“This was a senseless tragedy that was totally unacceptable,” the mayor said. “Our justice system has sent a clear and resounding message about accountability to the community: If you engage in brazen acts of violence, you will be prosecuted, sentenced and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
As he did following the jury’s verdicts, Le showed little emotion during the sentencing.
The shootout came a week before Essence Fest and prompted Landrieu to plead for a contingent of State Police troopers to supplement a New Orleans Police Department force in the French Quarter that had dwindled because of a broader manpower shortfall. Those troopers remain, now funded through an additional sales tax on French Quarter spenders.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.