Seth Fontenot's day in court has finally arrived

by Patrick Flanagan

If all goes as planned, Seth Fontenot’s first-degree murder trial — after being postponed four times over the last two years — should finally get underway this week in the 15th Judicial District.

Photo by Robin May

If all goes as planned, Seth Fontenot’s first-degree murder trial — after being postponed four times over the last two years — should finally get underway this week in the 15th Judicial District.

The first-degree murder trial, which could end in a life in prison for Fontenot — prosecutors opted against the death penalty — is the result of an early morning encounter on Feb. 10, 2013, between an armed Fontenot and three teens in a pickup truck. The encounter ultimately ended with three shots fired as the teen-filled truck attempted to pull away from the curb outside Fontenot’s home that morning, ending in the death of 15-year-old Austin Rivault, a St. Thomas More freshman who was sitting in the vehicle’s backseat. The truck’s other two teen occupants also were struck by Fontenot’s bullets, but not fatally.

Since that encounter, Fontenot’s story has generated countless headlines and much speculation over the prosecutions’ pursuit of a first-degree murder conviction. The high-profile nature of it all, coupled with the juvenile status of the victims, has resulted in a case surrounded in question marks as the court — including eight different presiding judges — has largely fought to keep the public and media at bay during the two-year progression of the case. That kids glove approach eventually sparked a lawsuit from The Advocate and KATC TV3, which came to a head earlier this year ending with an order from a visiting judge calling for the unsealing of all but a handful of court documents related to the case.

Going into this week’s trial, not much has been left to the imagination as to what happened on the night of Fontenot’s encounter with the three teens. The recent unsealing of the court records, and the local media’s fascination with the case can be thanked for that. For one, we know Fontenot admitted to detectives after the incident that he indeed was the shooter, but that his gunshots, he claimed in his statement, were aimed at the truck’s taillights in an attempt to scare the teen’s away, not kill them. We also know that Fontenot claimed he’d been the victim of a series of break-in attempts outside his home in the months leading up to the shooting. We’ve also been filled in on details like Fontenot’s alleged illegal dealing of prescription stimulants to his UL classmates, which he’s believed to have kept in his truck and may have been the reason for the claimed break-in attempts at his residence (it’s also a part of the story that’s expected to play a key role in the prosecution’s case strategy). We also know that the teen victims were likely involved in their own sort of mischief on the night of the shooting, and that at one point, Fontenot offered up a plea deal of his own to prosecutors, saying he would agree to plead guilty if the charges were reduced to negligent homicide. That offer — which would have reduced his potential time in jail from life down to five years — was rejected.

Whether Fontenot ends up convicted will be up to a 12 member jury of Lafayette Parish residents, 10 of whom, will be needed for a conviction on murder in the first-degree. The question for jurors will ultimately center on whether Fontenot really did intend to just scare the teens with his gunshots, or whether it was instead an intentional act of violence. And based on what we know, that's a tough, complicated question.

From a report in this morning’s Advocate:

Despite Fontenot’s insistence that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, a grand jury charged him with first-degree murder and attempted murder in February 2013. One of the requirements of leveling a first-degree murder charge at someone is the belief they intended to harm more than one person, according to Louisiana’s revised statutes.

“The issue for the jury is going to be whether he intended to inflict great bodily harm on the boys,” Mattes said. “… That’s going to have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Assistant District Attorney J.N. Prather is asking Judge Rubin to allow evidence that Fontenot had the drug Adderall in his truck the night the boys were shot.

Prather wrote that Adderall is a form of methamphetamine and that Fontenot was a known drug dealer among his University of Louisiana at Lafayette schoolmates. Prather theorized that word got around that Fontenot stashed drugs in his truck, which might have led to the frequent break-ins.

“The defendant has claimed that he was a beleaguered victim of several recent vehicle burglaries as an explanation of shooting the victims; essentially his claim/defense is that he overreacted and/or was trying to scare them,” Prather wrote in the motion and noted that the weapon Fontenot used was a “military grade handgun.”

Fontenot has expressed remorse for what happened. At a court hearing in late 2013, where Judge Earles ruled that Fontenot’s incriminating text messages were admissible evidence, he buried his face in his mother’s shoulder and wept.

And for more of our recent look into all the complexities surrounding this case, check out “Unsealed" here or in the March edition of IND Monthly, which is on newsstands now.