Covington, LA -- A St. Tammany jury unanimously found the first suspect in a murder-for-hire scheme guilty of first-degree murder. Luis Rodriguez-Hernandez will face life in prison for the February 2009 killing of Mario Scramuzza.
"We're all very pleased," Scramuzza's sister Valerie Dirks said outside the St. Tammany Parish Justice Center shortly after the verdict was read. "We're very thankful, and very happy."
Three men, including Rodriguez-Hernandez, prosecutors argued, had been hired by Scramuzza's wife, Gina Scramuzza. The plan, according to prosecutors, was to kill Mario Scramuzza in a way that would look like he had a heart attack. Gina Scramuzza had taken out a life insurance policy on her husband.
Dirks and other family members vowed to be back in court for the next three trials as well. "We have a long road up ahead of us," Dirks said. "We're prepared to be here."
When asked what his client thought about the verdict, defense attorney Dwight Doskey answered, "He is disappointed with the verdict, but I can't say he's surprised by it."
The trial began with jury selection Tuesday. After testimony Wednesday and Thursday, attorneys made their closing arguments Friday morning. The defense called no witnesses.
In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Dearing told jurors Mario Scramuzza "had no chance against the three thugs that awaited him at his home."
Bruce Dearing and lead prosecutor Scott Gardner told jurors, Gina Scramuzza drove the men to her home, where they waited inside for Mario Scramuzza. Once he returned home, they argued, Erly Montoya-Matute held a gun to Mario Scramuzza's head while Luis Rodriguez-Hernandez held him down, and Carlos Rodriguez bound him and strangled him.
"Luis Rodriguez was in that house," lead defense attorney John Lindner told jurors in his closing arguments. "He didn't go there to kill anybody."
Prosecutors disagreed. In his closing, Scott Gardner told jurors Rodriguez-Hernandez wore "gloves, but had no getaway car, and (wore) no mask." He explained, Rodriguez-Hernandez knew there would be a confrontation with Scramuzza, because they planned to use his vehicle as their getaway car. He wore gloves to cover fingerprints, but no mask because he didn't care if Scramuzza saw him because the plan was to kill him.
The jury deliberated for just one hour and 45 minutes, and that included time to eat lunch. The verdict was unanimous.
"For this defendant, Luis Rodriguez to break into his house and brutally slaughter him," Assistant District Attorney Scott Gardner said after the verdict was read, "depriving his son of a father, and the rest of his family, the rest of his community of someone like that.. We're grateful that he will spend the rest of his life in the penitentiary."
Gardner would not say what this verdict means to the future cases against Gina Scramuzza, Carlos Rodriguez or Erly Montoya-Matute. No dates are set for any of those trials, and the death penalty is still an option in each of those cases.
It was not in this case. Prosecutors decided before the trial began to take the death penalty off the table.
"We felt like we did what was just in this case," Scott Gardner said, "and the family agreed with us."
"That was a major win that we were very happy about," Dwight Doskey said. "I don't think this should have ever been a death penalty case to begin with. And I was very happy that occurred before the trial."