The attorney for accused Bourbon Street shooter Trung Le says his client saved lives when he fired on a second, still-unnamed shooter about 2:45 a.m. on June 29, but that a state grand jury never heard from the handful of witnesses who could vouch for Le’s heroism before it indicted him last week on counts of manslaughter and attempted second-degree murder.
“It’s amazing that they don’t put on the victim that got shot four times and the other people that were standing right there with a gun in their face,” attorney Martin Regan said. “Most of them said they would not be alive but for Mr. Le’s actions.”
The heroism angle is new, adding to Regan’s earlier argument that Le, a 21-year-old Belle Chasse man, acted in self-defense when he fired into a crowd in the 700 block of Bourbon Street.
The manslaughter count relates to the killing of Brittany Thomas, a 21-year-old Hammond woman who died a few days later from the wounds she suffered when gunfire erupted on the city’s most famous entertainment strip, injuring nine others as well.
The victim of the count of attempted second-degree murder is referred to in the indictment only as an “unknown black male,” a description that likely refers to the second alleged shooter, whom police have yet to name or arrest.
Regan claims the other man, who he says was heavily intoxicated, pulled out a .40-caliber handgun and cocked it before Le got off the first shot, hitting the man, who then fired away.
New Orleans police have not said how many of the victims were shot with which weapon. They initially booked Le on a count of first-degree murder and nine counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment on what evidence the grand jury heard in a process that is secret by law. “We do not comment on open cases,” Bowman said in an email.
Following the indictment Thursday, Bowman said the evidence didn’t warrant the counts on which Le was initially booked, before he was extradited from Mississippi and held without bail for several weeks in Orleans Parish.
“While the arrest was based upon a finding of probable cause, the DA’s Office must possess evidence that proves the charges beyond a reasonable doubt prior to instituting prosecution,” Bowman said.
Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino called the manslaughter charge “very rare” and “curious.” Prosecutors seem to be suggesting that Le provoked Thomas’ killing, perhaps by firing on the second shooter, Ciolino said.
Yet in many cases where someone is alleged to have committed a crime that led to a killing, the suspect is still charged with murder, he said.
Ciolino said prosecutors “will almost always” seek the highest possible charge. The manslaughter count suggests “essentially an unintentional homicide,” he said.
Ciolino said he expects that the second suspected shooter would be charged with a murder, if he’s caught.
Based on the charges, “I’m sure the ballistics don’t support” a claim that Le killed Thomas, he added.
Ciolino said it’s neither surprising nor unethical for prosecutors not to bring Le’s supporting witnesses before the grand jury.
“Prosecutors are generally going to make their case with as few witnesses as possible” in grand jury proceedings, he said.
With the indictment, Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman set Le’s bail last week at $1.5 million, at the request of prosecutors.
Regan said that while he was “pleased the charges have been reduced,” he will seek a further reduction in Le bail, arguing that his client fired a single shot, hitting the man who had pulled his weapon, and no one else.
“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Regan said of what he characterized as a one-sided grand jury probe.
Grand juries are by nature one-sided affairs. Witnesses who testify before them, for instance, have no right to have their attorneys present while prosecutors present their case.
Among the witnesses who say Le helped thwart more bloodshed, Regan said, is Robert Benvenuti, a friend of Le’s who was shot four times in the fracas, according to the defense attorney. He said Benvenuti told him that he never appeared before the grand jury.
“If Le had not acted, (Benvenuti) would be dead,” Regan said.
With the indictment, prosecutors eliminated the need for a preliminary hearing that had been scheduled for this week in the case.
Le remains behind bars in Orleans Parish Prison.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.