Seth Fontenot side-stepped a murder conviction and a life prison sentence Wednesday in the shooting death of 15-year-old Austin Rivault but still faces up to 40 years for the crime.
A jury deliberated two hours before deciding against convicting Fontenot on charges of first- or second-degree murder in the 2013 shooting, opting instead for the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Fontenot, who was 18 at the time of incident, also was convicted on two counts of aggravated battery for wounding two other 15-year-olds in what he testified was a tragic accident.
Fontenot’s defense attorney, Thomas Guilbeau, said the jury’s decision is bittersweet.
His client is elated not to stand convicted of murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison, but the 20-year-old still faces up to four decades behind bars when he will be sentenced by 15th Judicial District Judge Edward Rubin on the manslaughter charge.
“Seth is devastated. He is very emotional, and he knows he has to go to jail,” Guilbeau said.
The verdict was precisely what Guilbeau had asked of the jury in closing arguments Wednesday morning, when he told them Fontenot should be punished for pulling the trigger but that he should never have been charged with murder because he did not intend to kill or hurt anyone.
Fontenot was taken into custody Wednesday evening, but he will be eligible for release on bond Thursday pending his sentencing.
The family of Rivault and the two teens who were wounded in the shooting, Cole Kelley and William Bellamy, left the courthouse without commenting to the crowd of reporters who have been covering the case since it began last week.
“I think the family probably wanted a little more from the loss of the life of a son,” said Assistant District Attorney J.N. Prather.
But the prosecutor said he respects the jury’s verdict and said Fontenot still faces a substantial sentence.
“It’s a serious crime. It’s a serious conviction,” Prather said. “People can’t go around shooting people, and that is what the jury decided.”
Fontenot argued during the six-day trial that he fired his pistol not to kill but rather to scare suspected burglars at his family’s home on Green Meadow Road.
Fontenot testified that on Feb. 10, 2013, he heard what sounded like someone trying to break into his Chevrolet Avalanche about 1:45 a.m., jumped out of bed, grabbed his 9mm Beretta off his desk and then raced to the dining room, where he parted the window blinds and saw two figures in his yard.
Fontenot said he was wearing only boxer shorts and red Converse sneakers when he ran outside, saw a truck’s headlights come on and yelled “freeze” and “stop” before firing three shots in rapid succession, first aiming at a tire, then at the tailgate.
All three bullets hit the cab of the truck.
One struck Rivault in the head, and the other two wounded Bellamy and Kelley.
The two surviving teens testified last week that they were dropping Rivault off at his home a few doors down from Fontenot’s house and had no idea why someone was shooting at them.
Guilbeau told jurors in closing arguments that he finds it difficult to believe the teenagers’ story, which would imply that Fontenot came out of his home for no reason at 1:45 a.m. in the morning and began firing at a random passing vehicle.
“Those young men were at the wrong place, at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing,” Guilbeau said.
Investigators could find no fingerprints or DNA evidence on Fontenot’s truck linked to any of the three 15-year-olds.
But DNA evidence on one door handle was inconclusive, Guilbeau said, and investigators did not look for fingerprints or DNA on other vehicles in the family’s driveway.
Guilbeau also argued that Fontenot was so inexperienced with a handgun that he could not have possibly hit three people in a moving truck at night.
Prather painted a different picture, calling the shooting an “ambush” and an “assassination.”
He said Fontenot might have heard something outside his home in the early morning hours on that day, but it was not the teenagers.
Fontenot was admittedly frustrated and angry about prior vehicle burglaries at his home, and Prather said those emotions likely overcame him as he ran into his yard and shot at the unsuspecting teens.
“It’s pretty apparent he wanted to take the law into his own hands,” Prather told jurors during closing arguments. “What did he do? He was the judge, the jury and the executioner.”
Prather said it seems inconceivable that Fontenot could have hit three people on accident.
“Three shots, three hits. That doesn’t happen by chance,” he said.
No sentencing date has been set in the case.
In addition to the 40-year maximum Fontenot faces in Rivault’s death, he faces up to 10 years in prison on each of the aggravated battery charges, but sentences for related charges generally run concurrently, or at the same time.
Family members of the victims will be allowed to give statements at the sentencing hearing if they choose, Prather said.
Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.