GONZALES — Defense attorney Jarrett Ambeau showed Ascension Parish jurors a disturbing photograph of a dying Todd "T.J." Toups Jr. during last week's closing arguments in the murder trial of Toups' admitted killer, Jacob Westbrook.

Toups lay unconscious, appearing ashen and lifeless, with his sleeves rolled up, his black top-shirt unbuttoned. Westbrook was shown in the photograph cradling Toups' head and applying pressure on his upper chest just minutes after their deadly encounter more than three years ago.

Ambeau's use of the potent image was one of the more emotional moments in Westbrook's second-degree murder trial, and it underscored his successful defense of Westbrook under Louisiana's "stand your ground" law.

The photograph, Ambeau argued, depicted a needless and tragic outcome that could have been avoided. Things would have turned out different and Toups, the 18-year-old with a 5.5-inch deep stab wound in his chest, would still be alive had he not taken any of several opportunities to cease being the aggressor and not put the smaller Westbrook, then 16, in the position of having to defend himself with a kitchen knife.

"I don't want to attack the kid, but it makes me angry," Ambeau bellowed to jurors, that Toups did this.

A little over five hours later, the jury of 10 men and two women acquitted Westbrook, 10-2, of second-degree murder or any lesser charges in Toups' slaying on Oct. 10, 2015.

Ambeau's strategy might have seemed to turn the normal rhythm of a murder trial on its head, but some legal experts say it's in line with a justifiable homicide defense.

Under Louisiana law, people have the right stand their ground in their homes or public places where they have a legal right to be. When defendants in a criminal case invoke self-defense, state prosecutors bear the burden of proving the defendant wasn't reasonable in believing deadly force was necessary to prevent being killed or suffering great bodily harm.

Under an important legal concept known as the "aggressor doctrine," aggressors themselves can't claim self-defense unless they withdraw from the encounter in good faith and others should have known they were withdrawing. 

"Any time self-defense is at issue, it really is about judging the actions of the victim of what would otherwise have been a crime," LSU criminal law professor Raymond Diamond said. "That's exactly what self-defense is about." 

Still, the verdict acquitting the killer of Toups, a well-liked St. Amant High senior who was supposed to be hours from his homecoming dance, shocked many in the courtroom in Gonzales Thursday and has sparked predictable repercussions on social media.

Prosecutors in Ascension and members of Toups' family, through a family spokeswoman, didn't respond for a request for comment about how the "stand your ground" law played out in the case.

But E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, noted that Louisiana's "stand your ground" law passed with strong support more than a decade ago. And, he said, its application since then hasn't prompted major calls from local prosecutors that the law isn't working as intended.

The law expanded on Louisiana's longstanding "castle doctrine." It allows people to defend their homes and cars and to be in public places that they have a right to be in, and removed a previous legal duty to retreat from an aggressor in those areas. 

In a ruling during the jury selection phase of Westbrook's trial, 23rd Judicial District Judge Jason Verdigets rejected prosecutors' attempt to have the post-trial instructions say jurors could consider the possibility of Westbrook's retreat to see if his use of deadly force was necessary. In an emergency appeal from prosecutors, a state appellate court upheld that ruling. 

Adams said each justifiable homicide defense "turns on the specific facts of the case," and juries normally convict defendants who try to claim self-defense without the facts to back it up.

"You know we kind of trust juries to do the right thing. You don't always get it right, but they get it right a lot," Adams said. "So I'm not sure that this is going to be ... the momentum for a law change."

At trial, prosecutors argued Toups was slain while stopping by the trailer home of a 14-year-old girl and fellow St. Amant High choir member whom he was giving a ride to homecoming that night.

During that visit, Westbrook, who had mused eight days earlier in text messages with his brother about wanting to hurt a random person and see blood, inexplicably pretended to shake Toups' hand inside the trailer and then stabbed him with the other, prosecutors told jurors.

Ambeau countered that Toups was taking the young teen to a private dinner and date and, for reasons that remain unclear, showed up hours early at her home to pick a fight with Westbrook. Westbrook considered the Roddy Road trailer where his girlfriend — the 14-year-old's older stepsister — lived as his second home.

Ambeau seized on testimony by Westbrook and one other eyewitness that Toups was rolling up his sleeves and unbuttoning his shirt once inside the trailer home, saying he "had something for" Westbrook. Westbrook testified he took those actions to mean Toups was preparing to beat him up.

The then-16-year-old Westbrook testified that he'd  never been in a fight before and feared the older and larger Toups would beat him severely. He testified that he grabbed the knife to scare away the larger teen but reacted when Toups punched him.

Diamond, the LSU law professor, said that if the testimony from Westbrook was that he feared a severe beating, he gave the jury factual grounds "on which it could conclude that Westbrook reasonably believed he was at risk of receiving great bodily harm," a key element for a justifiable homicide defense. 

Assistant District Attorney Joni Buquoi tried to poke holes in the idea that Toups was a threat, noting Westbrook was able to walk past Toups without trouble to get the knife.

The prosecutor pointed to testimony from one witness indicating Toups was getting up from a seated position when Westbrook returned from the kitchen with the knife, not standing with his fists up as Westbrook testified.

In her closing, Buquoi also noted, dryly, that unbuttoning one's shirt might be the "universal" sign for a fight but suggested Toups' shirt could have been unbuttoned after the stabbing to get access to his stab wound, though there wasn't testimony to that effect.

It's up to a jury, Diamond and others noted, to weigh the evidence and decide who to believe. In an interview Friday, Ambeau said that part of his trial strategy was to have as many young men or women, or older men, on the jury as possible.

The older men, in particular, Ambeau said, would understand what it meant to get in a fight and also have the strong instinct not to back down when protecting one's home.

"I wanted some guys, guys who would understand 'stand your ground,' and they'd listen to 'stand your ground' and say, 'Yeah,'" Ambeau said.  


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.