Walter Pierce

A Tale of Two Trials

by Walter Pierce

Eric Abshire and Seth Fontenot have at least two things in common: They’re both killers and object lessons in American exceptionalism.

Fontenot, left, and Abshire

Seth Fontenot should have never been on trial for murder.

He never should have thought that stuff, his stuff — the contents of his Chevrolet Avalanche; what, an iPad, a stereo, a gym bag? — needed a firearm for protection. Why did a teenager believe he had to have a 9mm handgun? Why? Because his truck had been burgled before? And why did he need hollow-point bullets whose tips are designed to spread out like claws on impact and rend a maximum amount of flesh? Hollow points don’t pass through a body; they explode inside it. All for an iPad?

He will probably spend at least five years in prison for thinking that firing a handgun at a truck was the appropriate response to a suspected burglary. And he deserves to idle away what would otherwise be the most pleasurable time of his life, his young adulthood. A price must be paid, because a flashlight and cellphone camera or even a baseball bat were insufficient. Damn, that.

On the same day Seth Fontenot was found guilty of manslaughter, in the same Lafayette Parish Courthouse — same place, same day — 53-year-old Eric Abshire was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. First-degree murder is pre-meditated, gravely more serious than heat-of-the-moment manslaughter. Both take lives, but the former does it with intent, the latter with stupidity.

Although Abshire maintained his innocence throughout, the jury was convinced that he murdered a 39-year-old woman and her 67-year-old stepfather during a crack-cocaine bender. Abshire admitted to the crack addiction but swore he found the victims dead, panicked and gathered evidence including the murder weapon — his gun, which, he testified, he had given to one of the victims as collateral for drugs — and fled.

While Fontenot remains free on bond awaiting sentencing, Abshire was sentenced on the spot to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He will grow old in Angola, and he will die there. And Lafayette will quickly forget him and his victims. He will appeal — they always do — but that happens far away from the media’s gaze.

I’m sure I was among the majority of Lafayette news consumers surprised on March 31 to learn of Abshire’s conviction. The trial got almost no coverage; most local media gave it merely “oh, yeah, that happened” reporting after the Fontenot orgy had been gyrating its hips above the fold and among the first words out of TV news anchors’ mouths for weeks.

But if we examine too closely why this is so, we’re likely to see more than we’d like to acknowledge about ourselves, our culture and the media that feed its appetites.

Let’s do it anyway. Abshire’s victims lived and died in a little house on Warren Street skirting the sadly dilapidated Holy Rosary Institute in a working-class nook off Carmel Drive in what most of us in Lafayette of a certain vintage still call the northside. Fontenot killed a teenage boy and wounded two others outside his house on Green Meadow Road in the considerably more upscale Bellevue Plantation neighborhood south of Acadiana Mall.

Abshire’s female victim was a drugaddled prostitute who, according to testimony, traded her body for drugs. Fontenot’s victims were teenage boys from well-to-do families, freshmen and athletes at affluent Catholic high schools in town.

After the Fontenot trial, prosecutor Jay Prather told gathered media, “People can’t go around shooting people, and that is what the jury decided.”

Prather is stating the obvious, but he’s right: People can’t go around shooting people. Yet they do. In America more than anywhere. It’s sobering that Seth Fontenot ever considered a firearm an answer to property crime, and it’s equally sobering what these simultaneous trials reveal: Who you kill, not simply that you kill, still matters in these United States.