A former Baton Rouge automobile dealer accused of paying $10,000 to have his ex-wife killed in 2015 can represent himself, a judge ruled Monday after warning Hamid Ghassemi that he was making a bad decision.

State District Judge Tarvald Smith allowed Ghassemi, 69, who is charged with first-degree murder, to fire Tommy Damico and Brent Stockstill, the seasoned lawyers he hired in late 2015 and sued last month because he is unhappy with their representation.

Damico and Stockstill have asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Smith strongly advised Ghassemi against parting ways with Damico and Stockstill and representing himself, but at the conclusion of a hearing he allowed Ghassemi to do so.

Damico told the judge during the hearing that Ghassemi "has created a situation where we are in no way able to ethically represent him."

Smith warned Ghassemi, who has a college education but no formal legal training, that he will be going up against one of East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III's top prosecutors in Dana Cummings, who has been prosecuting cases for more than 27 years with much success.

"You run a risk of being out-lawyered, for lack of a better word," the judge told Ghassemi. "The court believes this is a bad decision."

Ghassemi, however, said he has placed his trust in God and insisted he wants to represent himself. Ghassemi said he does not need a backup lawyer.

Ghassemi, who told the judge the first-degree murder charge against him is fabricated, has filed motions to have the case thrown out.

Smith, who will hear those motions on Aug. 7, said he may revisit the issue of Ghassemi representing himself after the motion hearing.

"I want to make sure you get a fair trial," the judge said.

Ghassemi has a Sept. 14 trial date, but the trial is expected to be pushed back.

His ex-wife, Taherah Ghassemi, 54, disappeared April 11, 2015, from her Baton Rouge home. Her body was not found until May 16 of that year in a wooded area in rural St. Helena Parish. She had been shot in the head.

Hamid Ghassemi, who at the time owned Import One and Import One Elite on Airline Highway, had paid Taherah Ghassemi $1 million in a divorce settlement.

Ghassemi also wanted his son, Hamed Ghassemi, killed, Cummings has said in court documents.

Two of Hamid Ghassemi's alleged accomplices — Daniel Humberto Richter, 38, of Walker, and Tyler Lee Ashpaugh, 26, of Denham Springs — have admitted taking part in the slaying.

Richter, who once worked for Hamid Ghassemi, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and second-degree kidnapping in return for a future 50-year prison sentence. Richter admitted participating in Taherah Ghassemi's abduction and killing, and said he buried her body.

Ashpaugh pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a future 40-year prison term. He said he shot the victim in the head but claimed she was already dead when he shot her.

A forensic pathologist, however, has said Taherah Ghassemi was still alive but likely unconscious when she was shot, according to previously filed court records.

A third alleged accomplice, Skyler Williams, 22, of Denham Springs, is charged with first-degree murder in the case and faces a possible life sentence without parole if found guilty on that charge. He was 17 when Taherah Ghassemi was killed.

Prosecutors aren't pursuing the death penalty against Hamid Ghassemi, who would be sentenced to life in prison if convicted as charged.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.