Eighteen years after Todd Wessinger was condemned to die for fatally shooting Wayne Guzzardo’s daughter, Stephanie, and another Calendar’s Restaurant employee during a 1995 robbery, a Baton Rouge federal judge is weighing whether the 47-year-old Wessinger deserves a second chance to persuade a jury to spare his life.
Wessinger’s attorneys say yes. Prosecutors say no. Guzzardo says hell no!
“I want him dead!” Guzzardo said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I’ll fight this to my last dying breath. I’ll never agree to a life sentence.”
It took an East Baton Rouge Parish jury just 35 minutes in June 1997 to convict Wessinger of killing Stephanie Guzzardo, the 27-year-old manager of the now-defunct Calendar’s on Perkins Road as she begged for her life. Also killed in the slayings on Nov. 19, 1995 was fellow worker David Breakwell, 46.
Wessinger, a former Calendar’s dishwasher at the time, shot a third employee in the back, who survived, and then his gun jammed when he attempted to shoot a fourth worker in the head.
A day after convicting him, the same jury decided after about 90 minutes of deliberation that Wessinger should die for the murders.
Now, Wessinger’s current attorneys claim he should get a new penalty phase hearing because one of his trial attorneys, who is now deceased, was appointed to represent him just six months before the start of the trial and was ill-prepared.
Federal Public Defender Rebecca Hudsmith and Cristie Gautreaux Gibbens, an assistant federal public defender, also allege in court filings that Wessinger has significant neurological problems that could explain his actions nearly 20 years ago.
And they say they’ve uncovered compelling family issues such as poverty, abuse, violence and alcoholism that could be used to mitigate a death sentence.
“We know what they’re doing,” Wayne Guzzardo said. “They’re killing time so he’s not executed.”
Prosecutors contend Wessinger’s trial attorneys — Joseph W.P. “Billy” Hecker, who died in 2012, and Greg Rome — were indeed prepared for the trial’s penalty phase after he was found guilty.
They say the condemned killer’s bid for a new penalty phase hearing is “nothing less than an attempt to re-spin the narrative of Wessinger’s life in the hopes of a different result.”
The state’s attorneys — East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, Assistant District Attorney Dale Lee, Assistant Attorney General Kurt Wall and Special Assistant Attorney General John Sinquefield — also argue that Wessinger “was not mentally retarded or otherwise impaired” at the time of the crime. Sinquefield prosecuted Wessinger.
U.S. District Judge James Brady conducted a five-day evidentiary hearing in January and March and then allowed Wessinger’s attorneys and prosecutors time to file post-hearing arguments on whether he deserves a new penalty phase hearing.
Hudsmith and Gibbens filed their arguments in late April, and the state’s lawyers filed theirs May 20.
“Regardless of the outcome, this office believes the death penalty was warranted and remains committed to the jury’s verdict and the wishes of the family members who want to see justice done,” Moore said Thursday, expressing confidence Brady will rule in the state’s favor.
Back in early 2012, the judge rejected Wessinger’s initial bid for a new trial or sentencing.
Hudsmith and Gibbens argue that Hecker inherited the case in January 1997 — six months before Wessinger stood trial — from Baton Rouge lawyer Orscini Beard after a local grand jury indicted Beard in November 1996 on felony theft charges.
Beard, who was suspended by the state Supreme Court in December 1996 and disbarred in 2000, had not investigated the Wessinger case or sought funds for experts when he was removed from the case, Hudsmith and Gibbens allege.
Hecker’s father also died of a serious illness in April 1997, two months before the trial began.
“During this traumatic time, Hecker ‘effectively was not a lawyer,’ just ‘a son’,” Wessinger’s attorneys claim, quoting from an affidavit Hecker gave. “During this difficult and limited pretrial period, Hecker did not deliberately choose to abandon any area of investigation, he just lacked the time, funding and focus.”
Hudsmith and Gibbens also complain that Hecker called as witnesses two experts he hired — Baton Rouge psychiatrist Philip Louis Cenac Jr. and local psychologist Cary Rostow — without knowing fully what they intended to say to the jury, and was shocked by and unprepared for their testimony.
Cenac testified Wessinger gave him this account: He drank malt liquor all day on Nov. 18, 1995, the day before the killings, then went out with friends to sell cocaine. He drank all night until passing out about 3 a.m., then awoke about 8 a.m. and drank more beer.
Like it would on many chronic drinkers, Cenac said, the sedative effects of the beer had worn off, but the alcohol left Wessinger in an irritated state that made him impulsive and dangerous.
Cenac said Wessinger told him he rode a bike to Calendar’s, intending to collect $80 from an employee who owed him money for drugs. Wessinger met the employee outside the Perkins Road eatery but went inside when the worker did not come outside with the money. Wessinger admitted he shot Guzzardo and Breakwell, then left.
Rostow testified Wessinger, whose IQ is 90, is immature, dependent and sometimes explosive. Wessinger is not the type of person who kills for pleasure, as some do, but for the money he stole. Prosecutors said he took $7,000 during the robbery.
Hudsmith and Gibbens contend the testimony of Cenac and Rostow “was not only not helpful, but quite harmful, to the point that the prosecutor was able to exploit it to the state’s advantage at the penalty phase hearing.”
Stephanie Guzzardo was making a 911 call when she was shot. She pleaded for her life and promised not to tell on her killer before the sound of a gunshot cut her short.
The jury listened to the heart-wrenching recording, and the state’s attorneys are urging Brady to do the same.