Seth Fontenot trial delayed over defense funds issue

A judge delayed Seth Fontenot’s murder trial for a third time Thursday, pushing the start date from April to September because state funds have been unavailable to pay for an investigator and expert witnesses needed to defend the former college student.

Judge Edward Rubin said he was bound by another 15th District judge’s order in 2013 commanding the district’s Indigent Defender’s Office to provide money for Fontenot’s defense.

He reset the trial for Sept. 22.

Fontenot’s trial on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder had been set for the week of April 21.

Fontenot, now 19, is accused of firing three shots at a fleeing truck outside his home Feb. 10, 2013, killing St. Thomas More High School freshman Austin Rivault and wounding two other teens. Fontenot told investigators he fired at the truck’s tail lights to scare the boys he suspected were trying to break into his vehicle. Fontenot was indicted in the weeks following the killing, which occurred on an early Sunday morning.

Fontenot and his family did not attend the hearing Thursday. Rivault’s parents were there.

Judge Kristian Earles granted Fontenot’s request last year for public funds to aid in his defense, even though Fontenot’s family is paying noted criminal defense attorney Thomas Guilbeau for legal representation.

Earles presided over Fontenot’s case until the end of 2013, with Rubin taking the case in January.

Paul Marx, who heads the 15th Judicial District’s Indigent Defender Office, said after the hearing his office did not have available money for Fontenot in this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Marx declined further comment, citing a standing gag order imposed by Earles last year.

During the hearing Thursday, Guilbeau and prosecutors Mark Garber and J.M. Prather engaged in a discussion that got heated.

“We have several issues regarding the funding of our experts,” Guilbeau said.

Guilbeau said he wanted to keep the trial’s April date, but that he hasn’t been able to prepare the case without state funding. He said that even though Fontenot is not facing a death penalty, it is still a first-degree murder trial, which usually takes years to bring to trial.

“As of the tenth of this month (February), this case was one year old,” he said. “This is a very fast first-degree murder case.”

Garber and Prather, protesting the trial’s second rescheduling, said they were ready to try the case April 21.

“The Rivaults (Austin Rivault’s family) are entitled to a resolution of the trial,” Prather said, protesting the trial’s September start date, the fourth after delays in November and December in 2013, and now April.

Prather also took issue with Guilbeau’s plan to submit a motion asking Rubin to rule out a piece of evidence that Earles last year said could be used against Fontenot at the trial.

“We will file a motion to consider the text message — expressly the one with the N-word,” Guilbeau said.

The statement prompted Prather to respond, “Well, that’s judge shopping.”

At an evidence hearing Nov. 4, Earles said he would allow a cell phone text made by Fontenot that used a racial slur. At another hearing on Nov. 14, Guilbeau protested the inclusion of the text as evidence, and also about Earles allowing the text and other sensitive material to be seen and heard in a courtroom full of news reporters.

“We will not pick a jury in this parish, your honor,” Guilbeau said.

After the hearings in November, Guilbeau asked the state’s appellate courts to review Earles decision on the text and other evidence. According to Louisiana Supreme Court documents, the state’s highest court refused to take up the appeal, which let Earles’ decisions on the evidence stand.

In January, Earles rotated from Lafayette Parish to the Acadia Parish courtrooms of the 15th Judicial District’s three-parish region, which includes Vermilion Parish.