A man's vehicular homicide conviction in a fiery 2011 road-rage related crash that killed five local residents on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge was reduced to negligent homicide Wednesday by a state appellate court that said nothing pointed to his intoxication as a contributing factor.
A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal also threw out David Leger's eight-year prison term and ordered state District Judge Chip Moore to resentence the St. Landry Parish man.
Saying the St. Landry Parish man cut short the lives of two young Ascension Parish women and three boys by an estimated 322 years, a state jud…
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, no relation to the judge, said his office will appeal the ruling. That move, he said, is consistent with the wishes of the victims' families.
The crash claimed the lives of Effie Fontenot, 29, of Prairieville, and her sons — Austin and Keagan Fontenot, 3 and 11, respectively, and 7-year-old Hunter Johnson. Effie Fontenot's front seat passenger, Kimberly Stagg, 19, of Prairieville, also was killed.
"We are very upset by this ruling," said Stagg's aunt, Charlotte Baronne. "He was found guilty and that his intoxication was what caused him to lose control and crash and kill five people. We are dumbfounded and seriously upset with this ruling. Plus the fact they have never accepted responsibility for killing five innocent people."
A vehicular homicide conviction requires proof that an offender's unlawful blood-alcohol level combined with his operation of a vehicle to cause a death, Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham wrote for the panel.
"There is no doubt that the defendant was intoxicated as his blood alcohol concentration was above the legal limit. However ... the evidence failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant's intoxication was a contributing factor to the deaths of the five victims," Higginbotham stated.
"The evidence did prove ... that the defendant was guilty of five counts of negligent homicide," she added.
Negligent homicide, which is punishable by up to five years in prison, is the killing of a human being by criminal negligence.
Leger, 35, of Palmetto, was convicted in 2014 on five counts of vehicular homicide. Kelsye Hall, 28, of Baton Rouge, was found guilty in 2013 on five counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in prison.
State Police, trial witnesses and prosecutors have said Leger and Hall were engaged in a high-speed game of "cat and mouse" on I-10 West when Leger's truck spun out of control, crossed the grassy median and smashed into the car driven by Effie Fontenot. The car burst into flames between the Highland Road exit and the Bluff Road overpass on March 13, 2011.
Rachel Conner, one of Leger's attorneys, stressed Wednesday that Leger has a great deal of sympathy for the victims and their families.
"The court of appeal understood the legal issues and imposed a more just result," she said.
The 1st Circuit said the purpose of the vehicular homicide law is to curb traffic fatalities caused by alcohol consumption.
"It is not aimed at persons involved in vehicular fatalities whose alcohol consumption does not cause but merely coincides with such an accident," Higginbotham wrote.
Leger's blood-alcohol level after the collision was 0.10 percent. A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving in Louisiana for those 21 and older. A partially empty bottle of rum, intact and with the cap on, was found inside Leger's mangled pickup, the 1st Circuit said.
Based on the evidence, Hillar Moore said Wednesday, it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that Leger's intoxication affected his decision-making and actions, ultimately resulting in a loss of control of the vehicle and the fatal collision.
"Today's decision by the court overturns the jury's considered deliberation and decision and replaces its own without according the requisite deference to the finding of the jury," Moore said.
The 1st Circuit panel said of Leger and Hall that there was "insufficient evidence to differentiate their criminal behaviors." Hall showed "equally bad behavior without intoxication," the panel stated.
Higginbotham said the court is mindful of the "horrific loss of five innocent victims." Circuit Judges Guy Holdridge and Allison Penzato joined Higginbotham in the decision.
Last November, state District Judge William Morvant, one of Chip Moore's 19th Judicial District Court colleagues, awarded nearly $5.5 milion to the victims' families in a lawsuit they filed against Leger, Hall and their auto insurance carrier. Morvant cited the negligence of Leger and Hall. He found them equally at fault for the crash and the damages. At the trial of the suit, Leger and Hall blamed each other.
Citing the convicted drivers' negligence, "immaturity and stupidity," a state judge awarded nearly $5.5 million Wednesday to the families of f…