The Imperfect Murder

Stanley Cohen's wife went to prison for arranging to have him killed. Years later a Miami journalist reveals a secret. Now the entire case may be unraveling.

Bright, who was 39 years old at the time, faced a dilemma. Should she air Spear's off-the-record statements? Were Joyce Cohen and two men behind bars because of what detectives knew was perjured testimony? It was a journalist's nightmare: What do you do when you feel ethically bound to disclose information after you've promised not to? In the end Bright edited and aired the story with no mention of her doubts. She also chose not to tell her boss, Channel 10 news director Tom Doerr.

Journalistic ethics dictate honoring off-the-record statements, according to Joan Deppa, an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. But there's "a higher, or at least conflicting, ethical standard: that you should work for justice," she says. "If someone was innocent and stayed in prison because you honored a professional commitment to keep something off the record, then that's a problem."

"She has an obligation [to come forward] as just a plain old citizen," argues Lee Wilkins, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. At least she should have told her boss, Wilkins says; the reporter could have passed along her information without revealing the source.

It took Bright five years to come forward. This past July she and Hernandez volunteered sworn statements to Cohen's attorney Alan Ross, and on September 28 he entered the statements as newly discovered evidence, part of another appellate motion to vacate his client's conviction.

Prosecutors responded November 30 by disputing Ross's contention that the statements would be admissible at a retrial. And they included a contradicting affidavit from Spear signed October 15, in which the former detective said he had "no reason to doubt Mr. Zuccarello's testimony" and that "I never suggested to Ms. Bright or to anyone else that Mr. Zuccarello's testimony was false."

Ross is preparing a counter-response to the state. No hearing date has been set. Bright spoke to New Times, but only on the condition that the conversation be off the record. She stands by everything in her sworn statement. Hernandez didn't return a message left by New Times. Spear has left word with prosecutors that he will not speak to the press.

But Bright isn't the only person who claims Spear has hinted at a different version of the slaying than was presented at the trial. In an interview with New Times on October 26, Steve Emerson -- a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent who interviewed Zuccarello soon after his arrest -- maintains that Spear told him, also sometime around 1993, that he no longer thought the accused men were involved in Stanley Cohen's murder.

Alan Ross has asked for the appointment of an independent special prosecutor to investigate whether obstruction of justice, suborning of perjury, and witness tampering have occurred. If so, Zuccarello could face perjury charges. And if Jon Spear manipulated the witness, says Ross, he deserves to be in jail.

When Bright and Hernandez made their statements (from which quotations have been excerpted in this article), the reporter told Ross she first discussed her quandary in 1993 with her then-husband, prominent criminal defense attorney Mark Seiden. He encouraged her not to air the details because she'd "destroy" her career. (Seiden, however, tells New Times he had no such conversation with his former wife.) Not until last year, after she and news director Tom Doerr began dating, did she finally ask him what she should do. Doerr, who has since left Channel 10 and now works for a firm that consults with local TV news operations, said he couldn't advise her, according to her statement. She and Doerr are now married and live in Miami. Doerr did not return a message left by New Times at his business phone. Bright added that her husband wouldn't respond to the call, but reiterated that what she said about him in the sworn statement is accurate.

In early 1998 Bright told Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles what she knew. "Look, I can't get involved in this," she said to Robles, according to her statement. "I could be ruining my career. [Spear is] going to deny it, but maybe you can dig all of this out. It would be a great story for you, but just leave me out of it."

Robles has confirmed Bright's statement; however, she elected not to pursue the story. "I didn't see how it was something that could be confirmed," she said recently, adding that Bright suggested she call Spear "and tell him, 'Gail told me this -- what do you think?'" But Bright hadn't given her Spear's phone number, which was unlisted. "There were too many question marks. I thought it was a dead end."

But Bright just "kept getting these signs," and one in particular she couldn't shake. This past April she interviewed the author of a new true-crime book, Speed Kills, about the Miami murder of Cigarette boat builder/racer Don Aronow. She told Ross she couldn't remember the writer's name, but he'd told her a Broward prosecutor was planning to use the same three home-invaders as state witnesses in another pending homicide trial, and that the prosecutor believed they were not involved in the Cohen murder.

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