GONZALES — Jacob Westbrook, the 16-year-old accused of fatally stabbing a St. Amant High School senior in October, pleaded not guilty Monday to second-degree murder.
With his long, shaggy hair trimmed into a neat Afro, the fresh-faced Westbrook, shackled and in an orange jumpsuit, was led into the Ascension Parish courtroom for a hearing before 23rd Judicial District Judge Jason Verdigets.
“Not guilty,” Westbrook said after a clerk read out the charge that accused him of stabbing Todd “T.J.” Toups Jr., 18, on Oct. 10.
Prosecutors and Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office investigators claim Westbrook stabbed Toups during an argument over Toups’ plans to give his friend, a girl who was in the high school choir, a ride to the homecoming dance later that night.
Jarrett Ambeau, Westbrook’s attorney, claims his client stabbed Toups in self-defense and that authorities have grossly mischaracterized the incident.
Verdigets ruled in late October that Westbrook will be tried as an adult in the slaying, which occurred inside a Gonzales-area trailer park. The teen faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted.
No trial date has been set, but Ambeau said he is waiting on sheriff’s investigators to provide him an analysis of the records from seized cellphones and copies of all witness statements.
Ambeau said that once he receives the information, he will file a motion to seek bail for Westbrook, who has been held without bail since his arrest on the day of the stabbing.
Outside the courtroom, Toups’ mother, Suzzette Toups, wept and hugged others in the group who went to the hearing as Assistant District Attorney Joni Buquoi explained to them what had happened in court and what would be coming up next.
Toups said she and her son’s childhood friends have been instructed by prosecutors not to speak about the facts of the case.
But several of those friends, who like her son are seniors, said they were at the hearing to support Toups, whom they call “Mama Sue.”
“The reason why we came here is because our mom needed the support. We’re going to support her all the way, and we’re going to show her how much we love her and how much we cared about her son,” said Landon Struppeck, 18.
David Michel, 18, who said Toups has taken him in to her family, said he and his friends received an excused absence from their principal at St. Amant High after they obtained notes from their parents to attend the hearing.
Michel said he met Todd Toups and the two became best friends when they were both young children and Toups, who was riding a tricycle, crashed into him.
“So we kind of all grew up as brothers,” Michel said.
Joshua Severin, 18, said it’s been hard these past few months without Todd Toups, whom he had known since second grade.
“I’m just sitting here going … not knowing what to do with myself,” Severin said.
Ambeau tried last month to have Verdigets recuse himself and have the case assigned to another judge. Ambeau questioned how Verdigets was assigned to Westbrook’s case. After a hearing Nov. 19, Verdigets rejected that motion, though Ambeau told the judge then that he planned an appeal.
Westbrook’s next hearing date is Jan. 11.