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Peter Pianezzi


Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, Peter Pianezzi served thirteen years before being paroled in 1953. He was pardoned on the basis of innocence in 1981. Pianezzi’s 1940 conviction ultimately rested on the testimony of two eyewitnesses who claimed Pianezzi had been a shooter in a double homicide three years earlier.
 
At 12:20 a.m. on October 25, 1937, two men walked into the Roost Cafe, a Los Angeles beer joint, and fatally shot Redondo Beach’s gambling czar, George Lester Bruneman, more than a dozen times.
 
As the two gunmen fled and joined a third man in a getaway car, Frank Greuzard, a Roost Cafe employee, ran after them to try to obtain their license plate number. He was promptly shot dead as well. Also wounded in the café was Bruneman’s nurse, Alice Ingram, who survived three gunshot wounds to her legs. Ingram had been taking care of Bruneman for three months after he was wounded during an earlier unsuccessful attempt on his life. In the weeks following the slayings, the Los Angeles City Council appropriated an extra $10,000 to the police budget to aid in the apprehension of the perpetrators.
 
In July 1938, Peter Pianezzi and Joseph Barry — both ex-convicts and former prison cellmates — were indicted on murder charges—although neither was in custody. Detectives claimed that Barry had killed Bruneman and Greuzard with the help of Pianezzi. Police said five witnesses identified Pianezzi. Detectives said the two had been hired to kill Bruneman.
 
A full-scale manhunt along the Pacific coast was unsuccessful in locating them, until Barry was arrested in September 1939. It was soon proven that Barry was in the San Francisco jail when the slayings occurred and his indictment was dismissed.
 
Two months later, Pianezzi was arrested in Los Angeles. In addition to the Bruneman murders, Pianezzi was also accused of spearheading a bank robbery ring that operated up and down the coast.
 
Pianezzi went to trial for the murders of Bruneman and Gruezard in February 1940. Out of 11 witnesses in the Roost Cafe, two testified they saw Pianezzi pull the trigger. Elaine Huddle, the wife of the café’s owner, testified that she would never forget Pianezzi’s face because it had been illuminated by a 250-watt floodlight that hung above the doorway where the killers entered.
 
Dean Farris, the café’s bartender, testified that Pianezzi kicked over Bruneman’s body after he was first shot and fired a .45-caliber bullet into his head. After the prosecution rested its case, the defense called three witnesses who told the jury that, at the time of the crime, Pianezzi was five miles away from the shooting in a Los Angeles cocktail lounge sipping cocktails and listening to music. Pianezzi testified in his own defense and denied involvement.
 
On February 26, 1940, a jury of eight men and four women began deliberating. After 15 hours of deliberation, the jury – standing 9-3 in favor of acquittal – was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Superior Judge A. A. Scott declared a mistrial.
 
Prior to the second trial, Judge Scott ordered a bodyguard be provided for Huddle after an apparent threat on her life. Meanwhile Farris disappeared from his home for approximately twenty days before resurfacing
 
The retrial was essentially a repeat of the first trial except for the verdict. The jury began deliberating on a Monday and five days later, on Friday, convicted Pianezzi of two counts of murder. The prosecution sought the death penalty, but the jury could not reach a unanimous decision—voting 11 to 1 for death—and so he was sentenced to life in prison and shuttled off to Folsom Prison.
 
Pianezzi sought a new trial, but the motion was denied. On April 27, 1940, a jury convicted Pianezzi of two bank robberies and sentenced him to twenty-four years in prison.
 
Weeks later, Dean Farris’s wife came forward and said that her husband had told her that Pianezzi was not one of the gunmen but that he was going to testify against him anyway because “he has done enough things in life to deserve the gas chamber.” This testimony was the subject of another motion for a new trial, which was rejected in 1941.
 
While Pianezzi was in prison, his girlfriend obtained a job working as a telephone operator for William Newsom Sr., a building contractor and influential Democrat. Over time, Newsom learned of Pianezzi’s case and became convinced he was innocent.
 
On May 29, 1953, Pianezzi was released on parole based on his “excellent readjustment” in prison. Pianezzi became a newspaper distributor in Mill Valley, California. Newsom and his son, also named William, advocated for Pianezzi for more than a decade. In December 1966, Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr., a friend of the Newsom family, granted Pianezzi a pardon based on rehabilitation.
 
In 1980, Pianezzi sought a pardon based on innocence after Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, a career hitman for organized crime, began spilling secrets. Among his revelations was that the real killers were hitmen Frank Bompensiero and Leo Moceri. According to Fratianno, Bruneman was killed because he refused to share gambling revenues with Los Angeles mafia boss Jack Dragna.
 
In 1981, 44 years after the shooting, Governor Edmund Brown Jr.—whose father granted Pianezzi his first pardon—granted him a pardon based on innocence. Pianezzi was 79 years old.
 
“Since the time of the conviction, there has been substantial new evidence of innocence that has led a number of people to conclude that Pianezzi was wrongfully convicted. Were the jury to hear the case today,” said the Governor’s legal advisor, “he would not have been convicted...”
 
Pianezzi died on February 18, 1992. He was 90.
 
In March 2019, more than 25 years later, California Governor Gavin Newsom—whose grandfather and father (later, a California Court of Appeal judge) had befriended and advocated for Pianezzi—cited Pianezzi’s case as he imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in California.
 
Governor Newsom said he met Pianezzi when he was 10 or 11 years old and became a personal friend of Pianezzi as well. As he announced the moratorium and the dismantling of the execution chamber at San Quentin State prison, Governor Newsom said his exposure to Pianezzi’s case had shaped his position on capital punishment.
 
“I was a young man learning that life story,” Governor Newsom said. “I also got to know Pete up until his dying days, and I had the opportunity to start thinking and reflecting on the death penalty, on its purpose and on the passion that arises when we debate the issue.”
 
- Researched by Maurice Possley
State:CA
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1937
Convicted:1940
Exonerated:1966
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:35
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation