Acadiana students get look at appeals court

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- St. Thomas More High School students, front row, from right, Emilee Leger, Celeste Manuel and Blakely Summerhays watch  proceedings of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal Thursday with classmates, back row, from right, Caroline Piccione, Oakley Montgomery, Natalie Istre and Caroline Adams.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- St. Thomas More High School students, front row, from right, Emilee Leger, Celeste Manuel and Blakely Summerhays watch proceedings of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal Thursday with classmates, back row, from right, Caroline Piccione, Oakley Montgomery, Natalie Istre and Caroline Adams.

High school sophomores and some teachers packed a federal courtroom twice this week to witness how one of Louisiana’s appellate courts conducts appeals.

Gauging from visible struggles the 15- and 16-year-olds had staying awake Thursday morning, civil matters such as workmen’s compensation and personal injury cases are boring. But students’ eyes and ears perked up for the third case, an appeal of a Natchitoches Parish second-degree murder conviction that netted the defendant life in prison.

The conviction involved a case with multiple assailants and victims and a drug deal that went bad in Natchitoches. And it resonated with students.

“It shows how something small can turn into something big,” said Zack Cachleleux, 16, one of about 76 sophomores at St. Thomas More Catholic High School who attended the Thursday session. Also attending were sophomores from Lafayette High.

Michaela Smith, 15, was with Cachleleux and other St. Thomas More students from Chad Judice’s honors civics class. She said attorneys talking about a drug deal that turned deadly, and eventually into a case known as “The State of Louisiana v. Jamario Kato,” was more relatable to students than the arcane legal language of workmen’s compensation or other civil cases.

“We sort of understood it more,” Smith said.

Kato’s appeal was taken up by lawyers with the Louisiana Appellate Project, which is funded by the Louisiana Public Defender Board. The Louisiana Appellate Project files appeals on behalf of indigent prisoners.

Kato’s attorney, Edward John Marquet, with the appellate project, said Kato, now 23, was sentenced to life in prison even though he didn’t kill Tremaine Jackson in January 2011.

Another defendant made a deal with the prosecutor and was sentenced to 20 years for his role, while a third defendant got 40 years.

Marquet said testimony by the defendant who made the plea deal was the only one of the seven witnesses for the prosecution who implicated Kato.

Third Circuit Court Judge Shannon Gremillion, who joined chief Judge Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux and Judge Phyllis M. Keaty in the three-jurist panel, told Marquet it was up to the jury to decide which witness and what evidence to take into consideration.

Natchitoches Parish District Attorney Van Kyzar told justices and the students it was “fitting” that the Kato case be aired in front of high schoolers.

Kyzar said the person killed in the drug deal wasn’t that much older than the students, and the victim’s child and girlfriend were inside the home where the shooting took place.

The shooting “was a bad decision after drugs and a little bit of money,” Kyzar said.

“(Kato) was guilty of felony murder, and he was convicted of felony murder,” the district attorney said.

The three-judge panel will rule in the case in the coming weeks.

Judice, the St. Thomas More honors civics teacher, said his students were studying the government’s judicial branch in school, and the 3rd Circuit session Thursday “was a real-life application.”