Jury convicts Leger of vehicular homicide

Karen Stagg knows a St. Landry Parish man’s five vehicular homicide convictions won’t bring back her 19-year-old daughter, her daughter’s friend and that woman’s three young boys, but she said it does mean David Leger will be held accountable for his actions on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge on March 13, 2011.

It was on that tragic Sunday night that an intoxicated Leger and another driver, Kelsye Hall, were engaged in a reckless and high-speed game of cat and mouse on I-10 West between Prairieville and Baton Rouge when Leger’s pickup spun out of control, crossed the grassy median and collided head on with a car driven by Effie Fontenot on I-10 East.

The horrific collision and fire killed coworkers Fontenot, 29, and Kimberly Stagg, both of Prairieville, and Fontenot’s children Austin Fontenot, 3, Hunter Johnson, 7, and Keagan Fontenot, 11.

“She wouldn’t want to hold any animosity,” Veronica Sue Fontenot, mother of Effie Fontenot and grandmother of her three boys, said Friday evening on the steps of the 19th Judicial District Courthouse shortly after a jury of four women and two men found Leger guilty as charged.

The jury deliberated less than 90 minutes.

“We’re happy we got this,” Karen Stagg said. “We didn’t want their deaths to go unaccounted for. It will never bring them back.”

Leger, 32, of Palmetto, faces a sentence of five to 30 years in prison on each vehicular homicide count.

State District Judge Trudy White, who convicted Hall last summer and sentenced her to two years in prison, will sentence Leger on Aug. 26.

Hall, 25, of Baton Rouge, was released from prison last weekend and testified Wednesday for the prosecution at Leger’s trial. Hall told the jury Leger tailed her on the interstate for about 10 miles before trying to pass her on the shoulder. She remains on probation for five years.

Leger’s attorney, Tommy Damico, said the verdicts in his case will be appealed.

“We believe we proved he was not guilty of vehicular homicide. We thought that at the most they might consider negligent homicide,” Damico said. “This was simply not a vehicular homicide. There was no connection between the intoxication and the deaths. I think the jurors misunderstood the law. I think this case had too much of an issue of sympathy.”

A vehicular homicide charge involves intoxication and is punishable by five to 30 years in prison. A negligent homicide charge does not involve intoxication, and the maximum penalty is five years in prison.

Hall, who was not intoxicated at the time of the accident, was convicted of the lesser charge of negligent homicide.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III praised the work of prosecutors Ron Gathe and William Jordan in the Leger case and said he’s confident the verdicts will withstand challenge to a higher court.

“This is a solid verdict based on solid evidence,” Moore said.

That evidence included a nearly empty bottle of rum found in Leger’s truck after the crash.

“This is a prosecutor’s dream. We got lucky,” Gathe said in his rebuttal closing argument to the jury. “We got lucky.”

“We don’t know if Mr. Leger was drinking from that bottle,” Damico argued earlier to the panel.

Leger’s blood-alcohol level was 0.10 percent about 2½ hours after the fatal crash, which occurred between the Highland Road exit and the Bluff Road overpass near the Ascension Parish line. In Louisiana, a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving for those 21 and older.

In his closing argument to the jury Friday afternoon, Jordan described Leger as a “tomahawk missile” racing down I-10 West in a high-speed game of cat and mouse with Hall, who he said also was driving “like a bat out of hell.”

Jordan argued an intoxicated Leger tried to pass Hall on the right shoulder when his pickup clipped the front end of Hall’s sport-utility vehicle, rocketed across the grassy median and into oncoming I-10 East traffic, killing the five innocent occupants of a car.

Damico countered in his closing thoughts to the jury that prosecutors failed to prove Leger was drunk at the time of the crash, which occurred about 8:30 p.m.

“It is not a given,” Damico said of the accusation that Leger was drunk at the time of the crash because the blood-alcohol level might have risen by the time of the crash and the time the blood-alcohol test was conducted.

The defense rested its case Friday morning after an expert accident reconstructionist testified that Hall caused Leger to lose control of his pickup by clipping the rear of his truck.

Michael Gillen, the traffic accident reconstructionist and former Baton Rouge police officer, placed the blame for the crash squarely on the shoulders of Hall.

But at Hall’s trial last August, a former state trooper-turned-accident reconstructionist testified for the defense that damage to the front of her SUV was too minor to have caused Leger’s truck to lose control, cross the median and crash into the victims’ car.

“In my opinion, she was not the cause of this accident,” Richard Fox said at Hall’s trial. “The wreck was caused by an alcohol-impaired driver steering incorrectly.”

Gillen said Leger’s intoxication had nothing to do with the crash. Sober or not, he said, Leger would not have been able to recover from the redirection of his truck caused by Hall.

“It’s a sudden redirection of his vehicle. Unexpected, very sudden redirection,” Gillen said. “He doesn’t have a chance to respond to that.”

Only about three seconds elapsed from the time Hall’s and Leger’s vehicles impacted on I-10 West to the fatal impact on the other side of the interstate, he said.