Inmate seeks to void pleas

Brandon Scott Lavergne has asked a judge to void his guilty pleas in August to two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Mickey Shunick and Lisa Pate.

Lavergne, 34, entered the pleas less than two months after his arrest in a high-profile investigation that began May 19, when Shunick, a 21-year-old University of Louisiana at Lafayette student, disappeared while riding her bicycle home from downtown Lafayette.

The Shunick case revived an older investigation into the 1999 death of Lisa Pate, and Lavergne, who had long been a suspect in the older killing, also pleaded guilty in that case.

He has now apparently had a change of heart.

Lavergne, representing himself, has filed hand-written court motions seeking to void the pleas and the life sentence that he is now serving at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

“We don’t see any merit to any of his claims,” 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson said. “Once they get incarcerated, they have time to start thinking and second-guessing themselves.”

As part of the plea agreement, Lavergne told investigators where to find Shunick’s body in rural Evangeline Parish and gave a confession admitting that he killed her.

In return for the plea, he was spared from a possible death penalty, though he could face the prospect of execution again if the pleas were thrown out and the case went to trial.

Lavergne now alleges in court documents that he felt pressured to plead guilty because he faced a possible death penalty and believed his attempts at mounting a legal defense would have been frustrated by the extensive pre-trial publicity, some of which he alleges was stoked by information leaked by authorities.

“Bearing all of this in mind, the state did all of this with one goal in mind: to use it as a battering ram against the petitioner’s choice to exercise his constitutional rights,” Lavergne wrote in court papers filed earlier this month.

He also wrote that his court-appointed attorneys should not have advised him to accept the plea deal and cooperate with investigators.

One of Lavergne’s attorneys, Clay Lejeune, said he had not seen the recent court filings and could not comment on whether Lavergne felt pressured or not.

“Certainly, we encouraged him to take the plea,” Lejeune said. “… Legally, I would not ask my client to take a plea unless I thought it was in their best interest.”

Lejeune added that he was neither offended nor surprised that Lavergne has raised the issue of his legal representation.

Lavergne’s legal challenge is on hold for the time being.

Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Herman Clause ruled last week that Lavergne had not submitted the required paperwork and sent the filings back to Lavergne with instructions to follow the correct legal procedure for challenging the pleas.

Prosecutors alleged at Lavergne’s plea hearing in August that he struck Shunick’s bicycle with his truck and then either persuaded or forced her into his vehicle.

Once inside the truck, Shunick tried to call for help on her cellphone and Lavergne threatened her with a knife, prompting Shunick to spray Lavergne with Mace, according to prosecutors.

Lavergne grabbed the mace from Shunick, who then grabbed Lavergne’s knife and stabbed him several times before Lavergne took the knife from her and stabbed Shunick at least four times, prosecutors said.

Shunick slumped over, and Lavergne, believing she was dead, drove to an isolated field in Acadia Parish to dump the body, but once there, Shunick came at him again with the knife and Lavergne shot her in the head with his semiautomatic handgun, according to prosecutors.

Lavergne admitted to most of those details in a confession, although he maintained that he had struck Shunick’s bike accidentally and did not seek her out as a victim.