LARGO — Edward Graziano pleaded no contest on Friday to trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife, Debra.
Now he faces a sentencing hearing May 13 at which Debra is expected to testify about her fear of Graziano, who was recorded while discussing his plot against her.
Under state guidelines, Graziano, 55, could be sentenced to as little as 6.4 years in prison or as much as 40 years. Graziano made an open plea, meaning he had no agreement with prosecutors about his sentence.
"Basically you're throwing yourself on the mercy of the court, you understand that?" Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Timothy Peters asked at Friday's hearing.
Graziano said he understood.
The two sides are far apart on a possible sentence. Graziano's attorney, John Trevena, said he would ask Peters to go below the guidelines and impose a sentence of less than 6.4 years. Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser said he would seek the full 40 years.
Trevena stressed that Graziano was pleading no contest rather than guilty, and wishes to preserve his right to appeal. "He's not admitting guilt," Trevena said.
Whatever his sentence, Graziano will receive credit for two years he already has spent in the Pinellas jail.
Graziano's plea was the latest development in a series of highly publicized legal battles that began with a near fatal accident in August 2007. The Grazianos' son John suffered catastrophic injuries after Nick Bollea lost control of his souped-up Toyota Supra and crashed into a palm tree during a street race in downtown Clearwater. Nick Bollea is the son of Terry Bollea, the professional wrestler better known as Hulk Hogan.
The Grazianos were still dealing with how to care for their injured son when, in February 2009, Graziano was arrested on a charge of solicitation to commit murder.
Pinellas sheriff's officials said Graziano offered $2,100 and a $13.06 Westshore Pizza gift card to an undercover deputy in an effort to hire a hit man to kill his wife.
The May 13 sentencing hearing is expected to take all afternoon. Trevena said he expects to call psychologists to testify, possibly to answer the question of how his son's condition has affected his mind.
Trevena maintained that this was not a typical murder-for-hire scheme because Graziano had "considerable vacillation" about whether he wanted to actually go through with the plot.
But Rosenwasser, the prosecutor, said this was a clear case of a murder plot, not a debate over "shades of gray." On the secret recordings of Graziano, he said, "his voice is on the tape and it's clear as day."
He also questioned how Graziano could throw himself on the mercy of the court and simultaneously refuse to admit guilt.
Trevena said Graziano has been "devastated" by the case, and is not doing well in "protective confinement" at the jail. He does not get regular updates on his son's health, Trevena said.
Trevena plans a vigorous appeal. He had previously fought the case with motions seeking to throw out various evidence. He said the Pinellas Sheriff's Office went outside of its jurisdiction because it investigated the crime in Hillsborough County, where John was being treated.
Trevena said that after the hearing on Friday, when the sentencing was scheduled for May 13, Graziano said to him: "Are you kidding me, Friday the 13th?"
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.