Todd Wessinger's death sentence in the 1995 shooting deaths of two Calendar's Restaurant employees in Baton Rouge was reinstated Thursday by a federal appellate court in New Orleans.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Senior U.S. District Judge James Brady, who in July 2015 threw out Wessinger's death penalty in the killing of Stephanie Guzzardo, 27, and David Breakwell, 46, during a robbery at the now-closed restaurant that Guzzardo managed. Wessinger was a former dishwasher at the eatery.
Guzzardo's father, Wayne Guzzardo, said he almost passed out and his wife nearly fell off the couch when the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office called late Thursday afternoon with the news.
"We couldn't be any happier. We thought we had been lost in the system. It's a relief," he said. "We just want justice done. At least it's a step closer."
Eighteen years after Todd Wessinger was condemned to die for fatally shooting Wayne Guzzardo…
Brady, who let Wessinger's first-degree murder convictions stand, ruled that Wessinger's trial attorneys provided him ineffective assistance at the 1997 penalty phase of his trial.
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A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit, in a 2-1 decision Thursday, disagreed with Brady.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III applauded the court's ruling and "thorough review of the record in reinstating Wessinger's death penalty.
"This case and the appellate process has haunted these victims' families for years," he said. "Hopefully this decision will put these families closer to imposition of the jury's decision and justice for all."
Stephanie Guzzardo was making a 911 call when she was shot. She had begged Wessinger to spare her life.
Wessinger shot a third employee in the back, but that worker survived. Wessinger's gun malfunctioned when he tried to shoot a fourth employee in the head.
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 not prepared. Hecker inherited the 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 convicted and condemned to die by an East Baton Rouge Parish jury in June 1997.