Judge orders criminal check of grand jurors

Seth Fontenot
Seth Fontenot

In a highly unusual move, a judge ordered criminal background checks Thursday on the members of the grand jury that indicted accused murderer Seth Fontenot in the Feb. 10 death of one teen and wounding of two others after the defense questioned whether any of jurors had a felony record.

District Judge Kristian Earles handed Fontenot a courtroom defeat Thursday, denying a request to throw out statements he made to police detectives, admitting he used a Beretta handgun to fire three hollow-point bullets at a truck he knew was occupied by more than one person.

Investigators will use the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database to identify felons who might have served on the Lafayette Parish grand jury that indicted Fontenot ON Feb. 21.

State law bars people with a felony conviction from serving on a grand jury, and Fontenot’s indictment could be called into question if a felon served on the grand jury that heard his case earlier this year.

Fontenot’s lead attorney, Thomas Guilbeau, said he had no specific information that any members of the grand jury have a felony record. But Guilbeau said he researched the names of the grand jurors and found some shared the names of people with a felony record, though Guilbeau did not have birth dates, Social Security numbers or any other identifying information to confirm a match.

Prosecutor Mark Garber argued that criminal background checks for grand jurors are not required under the law and that all the grand jurors responded “No” when asked by a magistrate judge if that had a felony conviction.

“It’s a fishing expedition, and it’s going too far without anything specific,” Garber said.

Guilbeau questioned whether the magistrate judge was thorough enough in his questions when grand jurors were empaneled.

He also said a grand juror could have simply lied or forgotten about a past conviction.

The defense attorney said it was critical to adhere to all legal standards in the case because Fontenot is facing a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.

“This is not some pie-in-the-sky argument,” Guilbeau said.

Earles in March denied Fontenot’s request to use a national database to check jurors’ backgrounds. On Thursday he said he was ordering the search out of an “abundance of caution.”

Fontenot is accused of first-degree murder of Austin Rivault, and attempted first-degree murder of two other teens who also were hit by bullets after Fontenot fired at a truck that was pulling away from the Green Meadow Road home where Fontenot lived with his family.

Rivault, 15, was hit in the back of the head. He was pronounced dead at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center.

The shooting happened at about 1:45 a.m. Feb. 10, with Fontenot being arrested at work less than eight hours later.

Fontenot, who was 18 at the time, didn’t request an attorney as he was questioned by Lafayette detectives.

Katherine Guilbeau Guillot, who also is representing Fontenot, argued Thursday that detectives didn’t at first tell Fontenot that someone had died in the encounter and that there could be murder and attempted murder charges leveled against Fontenot.

“He wasn’t told he could spend the rest of his natural-born life in prison,” Guillot said. “It was a death penalty case at that point, not a discharging of weapon charge.”

Earles immediately ruled that Fontenot’s statements to detectives would remain part of the trial.

Detective Larry Theriot, the lead investigator, testified that detectives at first knew only that one boy had been shot and killed and two others injured, and not whether the shooting was in self-defense.

“We were investigating a shooting,” Theriot said. “… We weren’t quite sure where we were going with this. At that point I was investigating the death of a child.”

Fontenot told detectives he was awakened by outside noise that morning, grabbed his gun and went outside to investigate and saw the truck leaving, Theriot said.

“He was slow and methodical,” squeezing the trigger three times with the shots two to three seconds apart, Theriot said.

“He said he was trying to hit the taillights on the truck,” Theriot said.

Questioned by Guillot, Theriot conceded that Fontenot appeared to be shocked when he was told about the injured teens and the death of Rivault. Reading from a transcript of the interview, Theriot recalled Fontenot saying, “I didn’t know who he (Rivault) was … He could have been something great.”

Fontenot remains out of jail on $700,000 bail.

No trial date has been set.