A St. Landry Parish man's vehicular homicide convictions in a horrific alcohol- and road rage-related crash that killed five Ascension Parish residents have been reinstated by Louisiana’s highest court.
The state Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that David Leger’s intoxication on March 13, 2011, contributed to the carnage on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge that day.
A partially empty bottle of rum was found inside Leger's truck after the fiery crash, and his blood alcohol level was 0.10 percent. A blood alcohol reading of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving in Louisiana for those 21 and older.
The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, however, had reduced Leger's five vehicular homicide convictions to negligent homicide in 2017 and ordered him resentenced, saying nothing pointed to his intoxication as a contributing factor in the crash.
In disagreeing with and reversing the Baton Rouge-based appellate court, the Supreme Court said the jury that found Leger guilty could have rationally concluded that his undisputed intoxication “either spurred his aggressive behavior, resulted in his refusal to withdraw from a dangerous situation, or both.”
"We find the state presented sufficient evidence that defendant Leger's intoxication was a contributing factor in the deaths of the five victims where he drove aggressively and engaged in a high-speed game of 'cat and mouse' that led to their deaths," Justice Marcus Clark wrote for the court, which reinstated the jury verdicts and Leger’s eight-year prison sentence.
"The jury's inference that defendant's intoxication led to that aggressive behavior was perfectly reasonable considering the facts and evidence presented at trial," Clark added.
Witnesses testified that Leger, 36, of Palmetto, and Kelsye Hall, 30, of Baton Rouge, were driving recklessly on I-10 West when Leger tried to pass Hall's SUV on the right shoulder. The two vehicles came into contact, and Leger's pickup spun out of control and crossed the grassy median.
His truck collided with a car driven by Effie Fontenot, 29, of Prairieville, on I-10 East between the Highland Road exit and the Bluff Road overpass. Fontenot's car burst into flames.
Fontenot and her sons — Austin and Keagan Fontenot, 3 and 11, respectively, and 7-year-old Hunter Johnson — were killed, as was Kimberly Stagg, 19, of Prairieville, who was riding in the front seat of the car.
Stagg’s mother, Karen Stagg, said Thursday the Supreme Court ruling left her with mixed feelings.
“We are pleased with this decision, but at the same time confused about how we got to this point,” she said. “Three children and two young women burned to death. David Leger and Kelsye Hall murdered the young people, including my daughter. I don’t understand how they still don’t take responsibility for their actions, or how the justice system could allow them to serve so little time.”
Leger and Hall are no longer in custody.
State District Judge Chip Moore sentenced Leger in 2016 to eight years in prison, three of which had to be served without probation, parole or suspension of sentence. With good-time credit, he ended up serving a little more than a year behind bars. Hall, who was not impaired at the time of the crash, was found guilty by state District Judge Trudy White at a separate trial on five counts of negligent homicide. She was sentenced to two years in prison but served less than a year in prison.
Negligent homicide is the killing of a human being by criminal negligence and is punishable by up to five years in prison. Vehicular homicide, a more serious crime in which alcohol must be found to play a contributing role, carries a sentence to five to 30 years in prison.
In a lone and stinging dissent Wednesday in the Leger decision, Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes said there is “absolutely no proof” that alcohol was a contributing factor in the accident. The physical evidence, he said, shows that Hall caused the accident by running into the rear of Leger’s truck after he finally passed her on the right, “despite her efforts to prevent him from doing so by swerving from lane to lane.”
“The physical evidence supports the uncontradicted expert testimony given at trial … that no person, drunk or sober, could have maintained control under the circumstances,” Hughes wrote. “Sticking (Leger) with a heavier penalty may feel right, but it does not achieve justice.”
Leger's appellate lawyer, Rachel Conner, had argued to the high court that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between his intoxication and the five fatalities. The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office disagreed and argued Leger’s operation of his truck while intoxicated resulted in him losing control of his truck and crashing into the victims’ car.