East Baton Rouge jury finds Dustin Musso guilty of first-degree murder

Advocate  Staff Photo by  MARK SALTZ --  Baton Rouge Police Department Detectives Brett Magee, left, and Brian Watson, right, escort Dustin Musso, center,  to a vehicle for transport in 2009. Show caption
Advocate Staff Photo by MARK SALTZ -- Baton Rouge Police Department Detectives Brett Magee, left, and Brian Watson, right, escort Dustin Musso, center, to a vehicle for transport in 2009.

Defendant given life sentence at his request

A daughter of the late Peter Musso Jr. said a jury put an end to her “nightmare” Friday by convicting Musso’s grandson of murdering her 76-year-old father in 2009 and burning down his home in the Belaire subdivision where he raised eight children and two stepchildren.

Minutes after an East Baton Rouge Parish jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, Dustin Musso, 33, was — at his own request — sentenced to life in prison without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence by state District Judge Mike Erwin.

Dustin Musso’s lead court-appointed attorney, Lance Unglesby, had pleaded with the jury of six women and six men to convict Dustin Musso of manslaughter, which carries a prison term of up to 40 years. He said afterward the burning down of the house with Peter Musso Jr. inside was too large an obstacle to overcome.

The jury deliberated for two hours Friday after hearing three days of testimony that ended Thursday. The panel’s vote was 11-1.

“Y’all don’t know how much it means to have closure to such a nightmare,” Cathy Salvador, one of Peter Musso Jr.’s daughters, said outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse in downtown Baton Rouge.

Peter Anthony Musso III, who is Dustin Musso’s father and one of Peter Musso Jr.’s sons, said the trial was hard on the family because of the unfounded allegations of sexual abuse made against his father by Dustin Musso and his defense team.

“Our dad was not a child molester. He took care of us well,” Peter Musso III said. “My dad was a good man.”

“My dad was never a child molester,” Salvador said. “I trusted him with every one of my children.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office previously dropped its pursuit of the death in order to bring the case to trial more quickly.

“I wanted the death penalty off the table because he is my son,” Peter Musso III said. “We’re satisfied.”

Dustin Musso, whose courtroom demeanor throughout the trial ranged from a subdued calm to agitation and even defiance, did not react when the verdict was read.

“This is a defendant who needs to be put away for life,” veteran prosecutor Prem Burns said afterward. “The act against his grandfather was horrific.”

In her closing argument to the jury Friday, Burns called Dustin Musso a “violent, vicious human being.”

“This is viciousness. This is evil,” she said of the crime.

Unglesby countered in his closing argument that Dustin Musso — who testified Thursday his grandfather sexually abused him as a young boy — “snapped because he had had enough.” Dustin Musso admitted to the jury that he knocked his grandfather unconscious during an altercation, then returned later and torched the house by spreading gasoline throughout the home.

“He is a damaged soul,” Unglesby said to the jury of Dustin Musso, who was in and out of foster homes starting at a very young age. “He is a tortured soul.”

Burns characterized Dustin Musso’s molestation allegation as “pure baloney” and only raised the allegation at the trial.

Peter Musso Jr.’s charred body was found May 5, 2009, inside his Glenda Drive home. Authorities said he died of blunt force trauma to the head and smoke inhalation.

Peter Musso III testified at the trial that his son came to live with him and his wife, Cindy Musso, in Virginia after serving prison time for stealing his grandmother’s car from the Glenda Drive home in the late 1990s.

Cindy Musso, who is Dustin Musso’s stepmother, testified her stepson threatened in 2007 to kill her, his father, their dogs and birds, his grandfather and a Virginia law enforcement officer and burn their homes. Cindy Musso said Dustin Musso made those threats the same day Dustin Musso’s father accused him of stealing money from him.

After making the January 2007 threats, Dustin Musso pleaded guilty in January 2008 to assault and battery on a law enforcement officer, three counts of threatening to bomb and burn, domestic assault and battery, and possession of marijuana. He was ordered to serve 14 months in prison.

Dustin Musso had been living with his grandfather for only a few days when Peter Musso Jr. was killed.

Dustin Musso testified he punched his grandfather after Peter Musso Jr. accused him of stealing his pickup. Dustin Musso maintained his grandfather had allowed him to use the truck.

“He doesn’t need provocation. He just goes off,” Burns told the jury Friday in calling much of Dustin Musso’s testimony a fabrication.

Dustin Musso fled Baton Rouge on a Greyhound bus the morning of the murder and was taken into custody later that day at a bus station in Montgomery, Ala.

While awaiting trial on the murder charge, Dustin Musso was accused of cutting another inmate’s throat with a razor in February 2012. He also spit on two detectives when they tried to question him about the cutting, sheriff’s officials have said.

Dustin Musso was forced to wear a mask during an October 2010 court hearing to prevent him from spitting.

Unglesby told jurors that Peter Musso Jr. had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality, but Burns threw that label right back at Dustin Musso.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde testified for two hours in this courtroom yesterday,” she said of Dustin Musso.