Photograph

Todd Wessinger (1995 file photo)

Advocate staff file photo by TIM MUELLER

More than two decades have passed since an East Baton Rouge Parish jury decided Todd Wessinger should die for killing two Calendar's Restaurant employees during a 1995 robbery, and the Baton Rouge man is still fighting for a new trial.

That fight, however, could be nearing an end.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 8 effectively rejected the 50-year-old Wessinger's claims that the performance of his attorneys during the jury selection and guilt phases of his 1997 trial was constitutionally deficient, and that prosecutors failed to provide his defense team with evidence favorable to him.

"We are glad that the Supreme Court has reviewed the claims raised by Wessinger in his federal appeal and rejected the vast majority of them," East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.

Wessinger has another petition pending at the high court challenging the performance of his lawyers during the trial's penalty phase.

"At this point, we are awaiting the Supreme Court's decision on the pending petition," said Federal Public Defender Rebecca Hudsmith, who represents Wessinger.

Moore said his office is hopeful the high court will reject Wessinger's remaining claims in the next couple of weeks.

"Obviously, this has been a long and arduous process for the victims' families. We hope to bring them some sense of finality in the near future," he added.

Wessinger is on death row for fatally shooting Calendar's manager Stephanie Guzzardo, 27, and fellow worker David Breakwell, 46, at the now-closed Perkins Road restaurant on Nov. 19, 1995.

Wessinger, a former Calendar's dishwasher at the time, shot a third employee in the back. That worker survived. Wessinger's gun jammed when he tried to shoot a fourth employee in the head.

Guzzardo's father, Wayne Guzzardo, has told The Advocate that Wessinger dying for his crimes would mean justice for his daughter.

Last summer, a federal appeals court in New Orleans reinstated Wessinger's death sentence, which had been thrown out by Senior U.S. District Judge James Brady in 2015. Brady, who passed away last month, had ruled Wessinger's attorneys provided him ineffective assistance at the penalty phase of his trial.

Wessinger claims his trial attorneys, Greg Rome and the now-deceased Billy Hecker, were appointed to represent him just six months before the trial began and were ill prepared.

In Wessinger's petition, which was denied Jan. 8 by the Supreme Court, Hudsmith argued that Wessinger's lawyers failed to interview eyewitnesses and other key state witnesses and otherwise failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the guilt phase of the trial. She also alleged Wessinger's attorneys failed to investigate and present a coherent theory of defense against first-degree murder and the death penalty.

"The end result was a guilt phase trial at which no defense was presented against the State's theory of the crime and the level of (Wessinger's) culpability," she wrote. "This lack of investigation and preparation and failure of advocacy adversely affected the entire trial and the fundamental fairness of the proceeding."

In their opposition to his Supreme Court petition, prosecutors countered that Wessinger received constitutionally effective counsel throughout the proceedings and has failed to show how any error by his attorneys prejudiced him to the point of depriving him of a fair and impartial trial.

"Despite the fact that two attorneys represented this petitioner at trial, and he had the assistance of experts and investigators, petitioner blatantly argues to this Court that no investigation was done," East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Dale Lee, Special Assistant Attorney General John Sinquefield and Assistant Attorney General Kurt Wall argue in the opposition. "This is blatantly inaccurate and contradicted by the state court record."

Sinquefield prosecuted Wessinger.

They also noted that Wessinger "effectively mooted" the efforts of his trial attorneys during the guilt phase by admitting the crime to a defense psychiatrist. Wessinger told the psychiatrist he had shot at least three people, and that after he heard he was a suspect he fled to the Dallas area. The psychiatrist testified at the trial.

The main problem encountered by Wessinger's attorneys at the guilt phase of his trial was the "overwhelming evidence" against him, the prosecutors added.

That evidence, they said, included eyewitness testimony, the recovery of the murder weapon, witnesses who indicated Wessinger test-fired the gun, his boasting before and after the crime.

Wessinger's attorneys "had the unenviable task of defending a guilty murderer who left a trail of guilt behind him that even a blind man could follow," the prosecutors stressed.

Hudsmith also argued in Wessinger's petition that his attorneys failed to challenge one of the 12 jurors who Hudsmith says explicitly admitted during jury selection that she would vote for the death penalty automatically if a guilty verdict was returned.

Prosecutors pointed out, however, that the woman responded affirmatively when asked if she could consider mitigating factors.

And although Hudsmith also argued the state suppressed evidence that was both material and favorable to the defense, prosecutors said the state provided "open file" discovery to Wessinger's attorneys.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.