March 2, 2015 10:56 AM

Has the extraordinary release of documents in the Seth Fontenot murder trial really served the public interest and — more important — his right to a fair trial?

Photo by Robin May
Since the encounter between Seth Fontenot’s Beretta 9mm and a teen-fi lled truck in the wee hours of Feb. 10, 2013, that left one young student dead, the first-degree murder case involving the former UL accounting major has been unlike any other in the 15th Judicial District.

Calling it high-profile — which by all means, it is — doesn’t quite capture the nature of everything that’s developed over the last two years between state prosecutors, Fontenot and his legal team, the judges and the media. But bizarre, odd, screwy, even Kafkaesque: these are what’s needed for capturing the essence of a first-degree murder case that has had five different trial dates, been presided over by eight different judges, undergone a prosecutorial change in leadership, transitioned from courtrooms packed to the gills to being barred to the public, put under gag orders, and ultimately been the subject of a lawsuit from the media to unseal every file and document in the case.

The freeze out of the media and public came last year shortly after 15th Judicial District Judge Ed Rubin came on board as the presiding judge in January 2014, replacing Judge Kristian Earles, who’d previously replaced Judge Herman Clause, who’d previously replaced Judge Marilyn Castle (this isn’t counting the three visiting judges who have also presided during the course of the case). For a murder case against an adult (Fontenot was 18 at the time of the incident), Rubin’s public freeze out consisted of sealing all the case files and barring the public and media from his courtroom during a number of hearings. According to a local criminal defense attorney, Rubin’s justification likely centers on the juvenile status of the three teens in the pickup truck — the two survivors are now both 17 — and from the case’s development prior to his taking over, when hearings were guaranteed to attract packed houses of noisy onlookers.

Over the course of his time presiding, Rubin and the media have repeatedly been at odds, with The Advocate, according to minutes from a Nov. 10 hearing, getting “chastised” by the judge for running an article citing a document that was supposed to have been put under seal. Rubin even issued a warning that the paper faced “peril” if it happened again. The paper responded with a lawsuit filed jointly with KATC-TV3 against the court demanding the sealed files be made public. And with Rubin having been out for health reasons for much of the case’s 2015 court dates, the lawsuit from the two media outlets ultimately did the trick, going before visiting Judge Harry Randow, who is retired from the 9th Judicial District. After some confusion and a computer glitch at the Lafayette Parish clerk’s office, the long-sealed files went through a quick unsealing, resealing and unsealing in the early weeks of February — finally seeing the light of day Feb. 19 after the glitch was fixed.

Throughout the last two years, there’s been no shortage of stories covering every little development in Fontenot’s murder case. And while the recent unsealing of all but 13 of the voluminous case files has spawned a whole new flurry of news stories, it’s also sparked a few serious questions: When does the media, if ever, cross the line in putting out the most up-to-date coverage on an issue? As this story is being written, Fontenot’s trial is a mere two weeks out, set to start March 16. But with recent headlines like “Seth Fontenot offered to plead guilty to lesser charge” (The Advertiser, Feb. 21) and “Files show Seth Fontenot sought plea deal in Lafayette shootings” (The Advocate, Feb. 24), does Fontenot’s right to a fair trial with an impartial jury still exist, at least within the boundaries of this judicial district? And what about all the potential jurors whose eyes might have caught a glance of those headlines? Do they see headlines like these and walk in with a verdict already tucked away somewhere in their subconscious? Or, is it possible that all this publicity could have the opposite effect, actually helping Fontenot’s chances of beating the first-degree murder charge?

“We and our colleagues at KATC believe confidence in our court system requires that the judicial process take place in full public view,” says Advocate Editor Peter Kovacs in an email to The IND.

Fontenot’s lead attorney, Tommy Guilbeau, did not return The IND’s calls for comment. Based on minutes from court proceedings, he mostly sided with the media’s lawsuit to unseal the records — save for a few documents dealing with the defense strategy.

“I really don’t think his right to a fair trial has been jeopardized at all,” says Lafayette criminal defense attorney Barry Sallinger, who is not involved with the case. Sallinger says it’s “weird” that Fontenot’s plea offer was ever even in the clerk’s office and that it was included among the slate of recently unsealed case files, especially since it was denied by prosecutors. In the request Fontenot offers to plead guilty to negligent homicide, which carries a maximum five-year sentence compared to life in prison if convicted on the first-degree murder charge.

While it remains unclear whether the inclusion of Fontenot’s rejected plea offer among the unsealed fi les was a mistake, from Sallinger’s perspective it could ultimately prove advantageous to Fontenot.

According to Sallinger, it shows that, yes, Fontenot admits to making a mistake when he ran from his home in nothing but underwear and a pair of red Converse shoes on the night in question and fired off three rounds into the truck containing the three teens, chasing after them because he thought they’d attempted to break into his truck. But that, Sallinger says, doesn’t mean he’s guilty of murder and in need of spending the remainder of his life behind bars.

“Do these headlines look bad to a jury? I don’t think so at all,” argues Sallinger. “If it was my case, I’d say my client was wrong, that he violated the law and that he had his rights as a citizen a little confused and didn’t fully understand he’d crossed the line at the time. He’s willing to admit a mistake and that he’ll pay the price for it. But he didn’t murder anyone. If I’m on the jury, I would think the guy admits he screwed up, but the state is going for the specific intent of murder, and that’s totally different from what actually happened. In my view, a member of the jury could go with that. He’s not pleading the Fifth, he’s not making it a situation where he’s trying to tell us an alternative theory. I think it could be a good move. When you sew seeds in a field where they don’t normally grow, maybe the seeds sprout roots and people realize this is a theory we should get behind.”