Zurik: Father questions whether withheld video, judge’s text messages impacted ‘Stand Your Ground’ case

Zurik: Father questions whether withheld video, judge’s text messages impacted ‘Stand Your Ground’ case
In this image from surveillance video, James Nero is seen holding up a gun to Fouad Zeton, Jr. outside of a bar in the French Quarter in 2018.

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A father has new questions surrounding the trial for the man who killed his son and claimed self-defense. Fouad Zeton questions whether video not shown during the trial for James Nero would have rendered a verdict other than acquittal based on the state’s 'Stand Your Ground’ Law.

Zeton’s son, also named Fouad, said he is still fighting for justice for his son’s death.

“This is a real sad story for our community and for our society,” Zeton told FOX 8′s Lee Zurik.

An August 2018 argument outside the Atiki Bar in the French Quarter led to the death of Fouad Zeton’s son, Fouad Zeton, Jr.

James Nero, 21 at the time of the shooting, left the bar and picked up a gun from a nearby vehicle before returning to the bar and approaching Zeton Jr.

“He ordered a gun in the middle of a heated argument, in the middle of heated passion of an argument,” Zeton said. “Where did self-defense come?”

Nero and Zeton, Jr. seem to argue -- at times talking close to each other’s face but not trading a punch or even a shove. In the video, Nero starts to walk away and returns to pull out a gun. Zeton, Jr. slaps it away and a short time later, Nero fired his weapon, killing Zeton, Jr.

“If somebody [has] a gun in your face what you do? You at least try to move the gun out of face to save your life?” Zeton said. “That’s the only thing my son did to defend his life because he had no weapon.”

New Orleans Police arrested Nero and charged him with second-degree murder, but in a 2019 trial, a jury acquitted Nero because of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law.

Mr. Zeton kind of chews him out for 60 seconds, my client pulls a firearm and he starts retreating away," Gregory Carter, attorney for Nero, said. "The whole time he’s walking backward he’s got the gun down, he’s not shouting anything at Mr. Zeton, he’s not making any movements -- the whole time he’s retreating, trying to get away.

“Once my client runs out of room at the end of the block, he stops and that’s when Mr. Zeton swings at his head, clips him across the chin, my client fires once, hits him in the collarbone,” Carter said.

Zeton Jr.'s father is speaking for the first time since the trial, devastated by the verdict.

“So if I fear of you, never throw a punch, just by you fearing of my size and you fearing of my weight -- that hundred pound weight [difference] gave leverage to killer guy use stand your ground law?” Zeton questions.

On the stand, Nero said he would have never been able to fight Zeton. But jurors were not allowed to see key video that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office tried to introduce.

The DA’s Office said the video showed Nero has a history of fighting and could have defended himself in a fight against Zeton.The video shows three separate fights involving Nero.

Section E Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson refused to allow the video to be shown at the trial. The DA’s Office appealed her decision, but a higher court also would not allow it.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizarro released a statement to FOX 8 about the judge not allowing the video evidence:

“We believe the trial judge erred by excluding critical impeachment evidence, notably video evidence that quite clearly demonstrated the violence of which this defendant was capable. Had the jurors been allowed to consider this evidence, I believe they would have concluded that the defendant lied about his inability to protect himself by any other means, and would have arrived at a very different verdict.”

Nero’s attorney said even with the evidence that his client can fight, the size difference would have been a threat.

“Sure, he can fight someone at equal size,” Carter said. “I mean, you look at a boxing match, are you going to put Evander Holyfield in there with a junior high kid? No right, they’re different sizes, you always keep people in the same size for any kind of fight.”

FOX 8 also obtained text messages sent during the trial. Judge Landrum-Johnson accidentally sent them to the prosecutor in the trial, Jason Napoli. While testimony was ongoing in the courtroom, Judge Landrum-Johnson sent the following text exchange with Napoli:

Judge Landrum-Johnson: “had to go in on napoli again. how u don’t have ur rebuttal witness here.”

Judge Landrum-Johnson: “and trying to back door in 404 [character evidence] that I previously denied and the 4th [Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal] denied”

Napoli: “whoops”

Napoli: “This seems appropriate.”

The judge replies to Napoli saying she is glad it was mistakenly sent to him.

Judge Landrum-Johnson: “It is. Happy u saw it”

Judge Landrum-Johnson: “Now u know my thoughts”

Napoli tries to inquire who the judge meant the text messages for originally.

Judge Landrum-Johnson: “None of ur business”

FOX 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti said it is not uncommon for a judge to communicate with people outside of the case.

“To say a judge has never communicated with somebody outside case about a case is naive, they do,” Raspanti said. " I don’t want to say [it is] inappropriate, but it is not something that in the best practices they should do."

Raspanti said for it to be a best practice, both defense lawyers and prosecutors should have been included on any text message.

“This is an ex parte communication between a judge and one attorney,” he said. “Whatever in a trial or any situation you have two lawyers and judge. And the judge can’t communicate to one side without informing the other of anything important in the case.”

But Raspanti said in this case, the exchange between Judge Landrum-Johnson and Napoli would not upset the defense team since the jury acquitted Nero.

For Fouad Zeton he does not feel that he has received justice for his son’s death. He said the judge and jury let down his family.

The man who fired the gun, James Nero, is a free man, but Zeton hopes the federal government will get involved, as he tried to hold someone accountable for his son’s death.

“A human being got shot and killed for no cost, for no purpose. He could have avoided all of this, to not shoot and kill Junior, my son,” Zeton said. “I will continue to fight for justice, til my son receives justice, this is not over.”

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