Police: Grand jury is hearing Bourbon Street shooting case

P)hoto provided by the NOPD -- Trung T. Le.
P)hoto provided by the NOPD -- Trung T. Le.

As an attorney for Bourbon Street shooting suspect Trung Le presses for a chance to quiz police about the evidence against his client, a New Orleans Police Department spokesman said the NOPD will not update the public on its investigation in the case, citing an “ongoing grand jury investigation.”

“The only time we’d update the public is if we have an arrest in the case or we have another suspect we’re looking for,” Officer Frank Robertson said, calling the release of any other details “improper,” given a grand jury’s involvement.

A spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office declined to say whether a grand jury probe is underway.

A grand jury indictment against the 20-year-old Belle Chasse man would allow prosecutors to move forward with the case without the need for a preliminary hearing, now scheduled for Aug. 26, at which Le’s attorney, Martin Regan, would have a chance to grill officers.

Regan has argued that Le acted in self-defense. He says Le fired only after a second man — whom police have yet to arrest or publicly identify, though they agree there was a second shooter — pulled out a gun, cocked it and pointed it at a group that included his client.

Le can’t be blamed for Brittany Thomas’ death or any of the other injuries reported by police, Regan has said. But he went further in an interview this week, saying Le actually hit the second shooter with a bullet to the chest.

“He says, ‘I got a .40-caliber for you,’ ” Regan said of the alleged second shooter. “As he points it in their faces, my client shot him and hit him in the chest.”

The other man “then, because of the damage he got, started firing down. He didn’t shoot these people in their face,” Regan added.

He said he was “about 95 percent sure” that Le hit the other gunman.

Police at first reported there were nine victims but later added a 10th, saying a 39-year-old Florida man walked into the 1st District police station about 12 hours after the gunfire “to report he had been shot on Bourbon Street earlier in the morning. Detectives observed a minor injury to the victim’s chest. This victim refused all medical treatment.”

That victim is the only one of the 10 people shot whom police have not publicly identified. None of the other victims identified by police was shot in the chest, according to police.

In response to questions about whether police believe the second shooter was hit, Robertson cited the alleged grand jury probe and said “it would be improper for us to comment.”

The 2:45 a.m. shootout in the 700 block of Bourbon Street on June 29 killed Thomas, who was from Hammond, and injured nine others, according to police.

Police tracked down Le in Mississippi several days later and booked him on one count of first-degree murder — an allegation that must be brought to a grand jury — and nine counts of attempted first-degree murder.

In the meantime, Regan is urging the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to reverse a ruling last week by Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, who refused to expedite the hearing.

At issue in the legal tug-of-war is just how much information Regan can glean from the cops now.

“It’s a race,” Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino said. Regan “wants to get a glimpse of the state’s evidence before trial. In a preliminary examination, he can subpoena witnesses. He can cross-examine state witnesses. Now’s his opportunity.”

Once a defendant is indicted, the need for a preliminary hearing disappears.

Regan also said that, according to witnesses, Mayor Mitch Landrieu reviewed a video showing the second shooter reel back from the bullet fired by Le and that the mayor “questioned one of the witnesses about it.” He said he plans to file a motion in court for the city to turn over the purported footage.

A Landrieu spokesman called that account false. He said the mayor had merely responded to a complaint from a purported witness who said police hadn’t spoken with her.

“He checked in with her, had NOPD talk to her, and she didn’t have anything. She apparently didn’t even see the incident,” Gamble said.

The state constitution mandates secrecy over grand jury proceedings, including the identity of witnesses. Under state law, anyone with access to information on grand jury proceedings “shall keep secret the testimony of witnesses and all other matters occurring at, or directly connected with, a meeting of the grand jury.”

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, said the office doesn’t comment on grand jury matters.

In the spring, however, Cannizzaro’s office acknowledged that prosecutors had presented evidence to a grand jury in the case of Merritt Landry, a Marigny homeowner who was arrested on an attempted-murder count in the shooting of a 14-year-old boy who had climbed over his gate in the middle of the night. A grand jury that was asked to indict Landry deadlocked, and Cannizzaro’s office ultimately declined to charge Landry through a bill of information — which does not require a grand jury’s approval.

Unlike in Landry’s case, where a grand jury was not required, prosecutors in Le’s case would need a grand jury to pursue a murder charge against him.

Le remains in Orleans Parish Prison, held without bail on the first-degree murder count and on $500,000 bail for each of the nine attempted murder counts.

Even without a preliminary hearing, Regan still could elicit police testimony by calling for a bail hearing in the case.

“The weight of the evidence is a relevant factor in setting bond,” Ciolino said. “But generally judges are a little bit more restrictive in what they’ll allow in a bond hearing than they would in a preliminary hearing.”

More than a month after the gunfire erupted, police have never commented on key details in the case, including how many shots were fired, from which types of guns, whether bullets from one or more weapons struck the victims, or what they believe the motive for the shooting was.

Le had been hanging out with friends when the shooting started. Among them, apparently, were Justin Odom, whom police questioned as a “person of interest” but did not arrest in the shootout. Another friend of Le’s, Robert Benvenuti, was among the gunshot victims.

“I spent three hours with all the young people that were standing on the corner. This is from four separate people, make it five, that they were simply standing on the corner doing nothing illegal at all,” Regan said. “They’re all good kids.”

Cantrell refused last week to order nearby bars and shops to turn over video footage from their security cameras to the court for “safekeeping.” Regan also has asked the appeals court to reverse that ruling.

Cantrell earlier had signed orders for a few dozen businesses to preserve their footage from midnight to 5 a.m. on the morning of the shooting. Most of the businesses are in the 600 and 700 blocks of Bourbon Street, with others on St. Peter and Royal streets.

Heeding objections from Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, who is the DA’s daughter and the lead prosecutor in the case, Cantrell declined to make the court the caretaker of the footage, given that no charges have been filed in the case.

Regan has said he fears that businesses that rely on police will erase or lose sight of any footage that might help clear his client.

It is unclear when the 4th Circuit might rule on those matters.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.