A federal judge on Monday threw out Todd Wessinger’s death sentence in the shooting deaths two decades ago of restaurant co-workers Stephanie Guzzardo and David Breakwell.
U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered a new penalty phase hearing be held for the 47-year-old man who has been on death row for 18 years.
Brady’s decision did not disturb Wessinger’s first-degree murder convictions for the Nov. 19, 1995, shooting deaths of Guzzardo, 27, and Breakwell, 46, at the now-closed Calendar’s Restaurant on Perkins Road that Guzzardo managed.
Wayne Guzzardo, Stephanie Guzzardo’s father, called Brady’s ruling a stab in the back.
“We’re so disappointed. It just took the wind out of us again,” Wayne Guzzardo said Monday of his and his wife, Carol’s, reaction to Brady’s written ruling. “He has no compassion for the victims.”
Brady, who held an evidentiary hearing in January and March on Wessinger’s claim that his trial attorneys provided him ineffective assistance at the 1997 penalty phase of his capital murder trial, ruled Monday that those lawyers were indeed deficient, thus violating Wessinger’s constitutional rights.
“We believe the judge’s ruling is the correct and appropriate decision under the law,” said Rebecca Hudsmith, federal public defender for the Middle and Western Districts of Louisiana and one of Wessinger’s current attorneys.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he has great respect for Brady but disagrees with his decision. Moore said his office will review the ruling and file an appropriate response.
“Everyone, including Wessinger, deserves a fair trial with competent counsel,” Moore said. “It seems as if it is never the murderer’s fault that the death penalty is imposed. It’s lack of family upbringing, the police, prosecutor, court or defense counsel.”
If the judge’s ruling stands on appeal, Wessinger will be entitled to a new penalty phase hearing in the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
Wessinger’s attorneys had argued to Brady that one of his trial lawyers, the now-deceased Billy Hecker, was appointed to represent Wessinger just six months before the start of his trial and was ill-prepared.
Wessinger’s attorneys also contend the jury never heard expert opinions about what they have described as Wessinger’s recently uncovered, significant neurological problems, or from lay witnesses about what they claim are compelling family issues such as poverty, abuse, violence and alcoholism.
“The question remains, had these witnesses been contacted and had a mitigation investigation been done to reveal these lay and expert opinions, is there a reasonable probability that the result of the sentencing proceeding would have been different?” Brady asked in his ruling, adding that he did not ponder the question “lightly.”
“After considering the mitigation evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing before us, which was not presented to the sentencing jury, this Court finds there is a reasonable probability that the evidence of Petitioner’s brain damage and other impairments, as well as his personal and family history would have swayed at least one juror to choose a life sentence,” he wrote.
Stephanie Guzzardo was making a 911 call when she was shot. She begged Wessinger not to kill her.
Wessinger, a former Calendar’s dishwasher at the time of the killings, shot a third employee in the back, but that worker survived. Wessinger’s gun jammed when he tried to shoot a fourth employee in the head.
“The evidence presented was overwhelming. This was a premeditated double homicide,” Moore said. “Wessinger’s clear intent was to murder everyone.”
Brady noted that Hecker inherited Wessinger’s case from Baton Rouge lawyer Orscini Beard in January 1997 after Beard was indicted on felony theft charges. Hecker’s father died in April 1997. Wessinger was found guilty and condemned to die in June 1997.
Before Hecker died, the judge said, Hecker acknowledged in an affidavit that he did not hire a mitigation specialist to investigate the case.