The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected yet another appeal from condemned Baton Rouge killer Todd Wessinger, who was sentenced to die 21 years ago in the 1995 slaying of two restaurant employees during a 1995 robbery.
A nearly unanimous high court on Monday, without issuing written reasons, denied Wessinger's latest application for relief, a claim that the performance of his attorneys during the penalty phase of his 1997 trial was constitutionally deficient.
“It’s one step closer to justice,” Wayne Guzzardo, the father of murder victim Stephanie Guzzardo, said Tuesday in response to the high court ruling.
Eighteen years after Todd Wessinger was condemned to die for fatally shooting Wayne Guzzardo’s daughter, Stephanie, and another Calendar’s Res…
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III called it a “final resolution,” but Wessinger’s attorney vowed that the fight is not over.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court's lone dissent that Wessinger was sentenced to death by a jury that wasn't presented with what she called "significant mitigation evidence" — including a major neurocognitive disorder that compromises his decision-making abilities — that may have convinced jurors to spare his life.
"That outcome is contrary to precedent and deeply unjust and unfair," she stated.
Special Assistant Attorney General John Sinquefield, who as an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney prosecuted Wessinger, said he hopes the Supreme Court’s latest ruling begins the last steps of carrying out the East Baton Rouge Parish jury's verdict and death sentence.
“This is a giant step forward,” he said.
However, Federal Public Defender Rebecca Hudsmith, who represents Wessinger, seized on Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion and pledged to “continue to seek avenues of relief and a fair trial for Mr. Wessinger.”
“I am encouraged by Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s acknowledgement, as found by U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, that Mr. Wessinger received layers of ineffective assistance of counsel such that a jury deciding his fate never considered the significant mitigation evidence in the case,” Hudsmith said.
Brady, who died in December, threw Wessinger’s death sentence out in 2015, ruling that his attorneys provided him ineffective assistance during the penalty phase of his trial. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the death sentence last summer.
The Supreme Court earlier this year rejected Wessinger's argument that his attorneys performed below constitutional standards during the jury selection and guilt phases of his trial.
More than two decades have passed since an East Baton Rouge Parish jury decided Todd Wessinger should die for killing two Calendar's Restauran…
“This has been a very long, tedious journey for the Guzzardo family,” Moore said Tuesday. “Since the jury verdict we have continued to respond to each and every challenge raised to overturn this conviction and sentence. After more than twenty years of litigation, we are satisfied with this final resolution and are convinced that justice has been served.”
Wessinger, 50, is on death row for fatally shooting Stephanie Guzzardo, 27, and co-worker David Breakwell, 46, at the now-closed Calendar's Restaurant on Perkins Road on Nov. 19, 1995. Guzzardo was the manager.
Wessinger, a former Calendar's dishwasher at the time, shot a third employee in the back. That worker survived. Wessinger’s gun malfunctioned when he tried to shoot a fourth worker in the head.
In her dissent, Sotomayor said Wessinger as a child suffered a stroke that affected how the left and right sides of his brain communicate. She also said he has a hole in the area of his brain associated with executive functioning.
“The jury never considered this evidence at sentencing, or other mitigation about Wessinger’s family history of poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence, because Wessinger’s trial counsel did not attempt to discover it,” she wrote.
The Supreme Court repeatedly has held that the failure to perform mitigation investigation constitutes deficient performance, the justice added, saying the investigation of mitigation evidence and its presentation at sentencing are “crucial to maintaining the integrity of capital proceedings.”
“Wessinger will remain on death row without a jury ever considering the significant mitigation evidence that is now apparent,” she concluded.
Executions in Louisiana have been on hold since 2014 when Brady temporarily stayed them as a result of a lawsuit challenging the state’s lethal injection protocols. U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick extended Brady’s order indefinitely in January, a month after he died. She has scheduled a July 17 status conference in the case.
Louisiana’s last execution was in 2010, when Gerald Bordelon was put to death for killing his 12-year-old stepdaughter in 2002. Drug shortages have forced state corrections officials to rewrite its execution plan several times since 2010.
Todd Wessinger's death sentence in the 1995 shooting deaths of two Calendar's Restaurant employees in Baton Rouge was reinstated Thursday by a…