GONZALES — Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley was grilled on the witness stand Friday about statements he made last October in a murder case, as a defense attorney sought to have the trial of 16-year-old Jacob Westbrook moved to another district because of pretrial publicity.
Playing for the courtroom a Baton Rouge TV station’s broadcast of the sheriff’s Oct. 13 news conference, defense attorney Jarret Ambeau made note of Wiley’s describing the case as “almost like evil met good.”
Westbrook has been charged with second-degree murder and will be tried as an adult in the Oct. 10 stabbing death of 18-year-old Todd Toups Jr.
Toups, a senior at St. Amant High School, died of a single stab wound after he had gone to the trailer home of the 14-year-old girl he was taking to the school’s homecoming dance later that night. Witnesses said there was a confrontation at the trailer home between Toups and Westbrook, then a student at Woodlawn High, and also the boyfriend of the 14-year-old girl’s stepsister.
Westbrook, who has pleaded not guilty, is claiming the stabbing was in self-defense.
Ambeau said witness statements and cellphone texts gathered in the course of the investigation don’t bear out two other statements the sheriff made at the news conference.
Wiley had said Toups was only giving a 14-year-old girl a ride to the dance and had another date for the evening, when he stopped by the 14-year-old’s home where Westbrook and other teens were, and that Toups had gone by the trailer home in the Gonzales area to meet the girl’s parents.
At the Friday hearing, Ambeau said it appears from Toups’ texts to the 14-year-old that he wanted to come by the trailer home because he knew Westbrook was there.
“How long have you been sheriff?” Ambeau asked Wiley.
“Twenty years,” Wiley answered.
“There’s a joke out there that the sheriff is the most powerful person in the parish,” Ambeau said.
“It’s a joke,” Wiley said.
After further questioning by Ambeau about when Wiley last had an opponent in an election — 1999, Wiley said — Judge Jason Verdigets sustained the prosecutor’s objection to that particular line of questioning.
Westbrook pleaded not guilty in December, with his attorney arguing the teenager stabbed Toups in self-defense.
On Friday, Westbrook sat quietly at the defense table in an orange prison suit, in handcuffs.
Family members and friends of Westbrook and of Toups were present at the 23rd Judicial District Court hearing in Gonzales.
Under questioning by Ambeau, Wiley said, “The things I said (in the news conference), the body and content of it was from the case officers.”
Other information came from the community, the sheriff said.
“Most of the information was relevant to the investigation. Some, indeed, was feedback from the community,” Wiley said.
“Do you think you have a greater duty than to get on the TV and report what you hear from the community?” Ambeau asked.
“This was a widely publicized (case) between two kids in a school. … You explain what happened the best you know,” Wiley said.
“When you talked to TV on Oct. 13, you had a decided idea of what happened,” Ambeau said.
“Yes, based on detectives’ reports,” Wiley said.
“At that point, the defendant was guilty,” Ambeau threw out.
“At that point, the defendant was charged with second-degree murder,” Wiley responded.
After hearing from the defense and prosecution on the motion for a change of venue, Verdigets said he would take the issue under advisement and give a ruling at a later date.
Verdigets also put a gag order — meaning no public discussion of the case — on the parties in the trial.
The judge also sealed the court records, a step sought in court Friday by Assistant District Attorney Joni Buquoi over Ambeau’s initial objection.
After the judge asked the attorneys to approach the bench for a short discussion, Ambeau said he could understand how a temporary sealing of the records would be suitable, so the names of minors could be taken out of the public record.
It was unclear on Friday, however, if Verdigets has sealed the court records permanently or temporarily.
Verdigets also took under advisement another of Ambeau’s motions, one asking for a hearing so bail could be set for Westbrook, who is still being held in the parish jail.
Seeking to show his client is not a danger to the community, Ambeau called Mia Edwards, the principal of St. Amant High, to the stand.
Westbrook had attended St. Amant High for several months, before his mother moved to Baton Rouge and he had to transfer to Woodlawn High.
After the defense attorney asked Edwards if Westbrook ever had any discipline incidents while he was at St. Amant High, the principal said there were three minor incidents in his student file: two for not having his student ID and one for leaving a fourth-period class before the early bell for car riders.
The judge sustained the prosecutor’s objection to Ambeau’s next request: for the student record for Toups. The court also did not allow Ambeau to call any of Toups’ friends to the witness stand.
Ascension Parish sheriff’s Detective Randy Heflin testified that toxicology reports show Toups had amphetamine in his system at the time of his death.
“To be fair, could that be any ADHD medicine of any kind?” Ambeau asked.
Heflin said he didn’t know and wasn’t familiar with Toups’ medical history.
Westbrook’s father, Duane Westbrook, an electrician at Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi, testified that his son is “a mild-mannered, laid-back kid, shy” who’s a good student.
Ambeau said Jacob Westbrook had never voiced any animosity against Toups to anyone, while Toups had been heard to make disparaging jokes about Westbrook. The defense attorney asked the court that bail be set at $50,000 and that Westbrook wear an ankle monitor and be released to his parents or grandparents until trial.
Buqoi objected to setting any bail, saying Westbrook presents a danger to the community — a line of attack that would involve cellphone texts.
After the attorneys approached the bench and spoke with Verdigets for some time, the judge told the courtroom he had ruled the prosecution could not at that time submit the texts between Westbrook and his girlfriend as evidence.
He was taking into consideration, Verdigets said, the defense’s objection that the texts were not dated.
However, at the end of the hearing, Verdigets allowed Buquoi to read a text, over Ambeau’s objections.
Buquoi read a portion of a text, in which Westbrook told his girlfriend, at an unknown date, that he wanted “to stab someone, he wanted to see blood.”
Verdigets said he would make a ruling on the motion for bail at a later date.
Verdigets also said he would rule later on another request from the defense: that the Sheriff’s Office provide software to look at the raw data from the cellphones of parties in the case.
The Sheriff’s Office has provided the defense with 5,000 to 8,000 printed pages of information for each of five cellphones, which was unmanageable, Ambeau said.
Verdigets set the date for the next court hearing for May 7.