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.

The polygrapher had Zuccarello write the new information as a statement, then tested him based on it. But again the test showed that his answers were deceptive. Zuccarello explained he had been upstairs where the shooting had occurred; he just hadn't wanted to admit it.

A third polygraph that day: Was he certain how many shots were fired? One shot? Two? Three? Four? Five? Six? Each time Zuccarello replied no. At last he showed no signs of deception: He didn't know how many times the gun had gone off.

Though it was 11:00 p.m., Spear and Waksman wanted a statement right then, and the formal interview began at 11:51 p.m. On the night of the murder, Zuccarello said, he, Anthony, and Tommy arrived at the Cohen house at 2:08 a.m. He remembered the digital readout on the El Camino's clock. They planned the murder to look like a burglary gone bad. Joyce was to give Anthony her husband's gun. She would make sure the burglar alarm was off, and she would keep the couple's Doberman locked away. Tommy was to show her how to make the house look burglarized. Zuccarello was to stay by the front door at all times. Wearing a nightgown, Joyce met them at the front door. "Let's get this over with as quick as possible," she'd said. After a few minutes outside, Zuccarello grew nervous, entered the house, climbed halfway up the stairs, and heard "two or more" shots. He ran up the stairs, into the bedroom, and saw Anthony standing over the bed.

Joyce Cohen's defense would later examine a section of that statement and suggest that Spear was trying to coach Zuccarello. The suspicious section occurred after Zuccarello's claim that Caracciolo had told him he had set up the murder with Joyce that morning. Spear had asked a series of questions:

"Did [Caracciolo] tell you that she was going out of town with her husband or anything that day?"

"No."
"At all?"
"No."
"And that she would be back later?"
"No."
Joyce and Stanley had been in Tampa that morning.

The prosecutors needed to buttress their case with physical evidence or additional testimony. But Anthony Caracciolo still maintained his innocence, and Tommy Joslin was a fugitive. Prosecutor Waksman subpoenaed phone bills from both Joyce Cohen and Caracciolo, expecting a record of toll calls between Dade and Broward. There were none. Waksman even went to public phones at two North Miami Beach 7-Elevens, copied all the phone numbers scrawled on the surfaces around the phone, and subpoenaed phone records. Still nothing.

With no other evidence in sight, prosecutors reluctantly left Joyce alone. Zuccarello began his jail sentence on reduced charges. Waksman left the State Attorney's Office (though he returned eight months later); prosecutors John Kastrenakes and Kevin DiGregory relieved him. Then in May 1987, Connecticut police arrested Tommy Joslin. Spear flew to New Haven and offered him a deal to plead guilty, but like Caracciolo he insisted he knew nothing about Joyce Cohen or her husband's murder. Nonetheless five months later DiGregory and Kastrenakes decided to move ahead and indict Caracciolo; in May 1988 they indicted Joslin as well. Joyce Cohen remained free. Relying on her attorney's advice, she invoked her right to remain silent and refused police requests for interviews.

Both Joslin and Caracciolo offered to take police polygraphs to prove their innocence, but prosecutors DiGregory and Kastrenakes refused. Assistant State Attorney Abe Laeser, who supervised the Cohen prosecutors, has told New Times that the state's refusal was reasonable. "I basically don't believe in polygraphs," he said. "More people are skilled at beating these things than the general public realizes. I'm not going to rest a murder prosecution on one of these."

Kastrenakes, one of the prosecutors who made Zuccarello's own polygraph a condition of the plea bargain, now says the polygraph is an excellent investigative tool, but "as a truth-telling device, it's worthless." He says he wasn't disturbed by Zuccarello's three failures.

Not until October 23, 1988, did Miami police arrest Joyce Cohen and charge her with the murder of her husband. They flew to Chesapeake, Virginia, where she was living with her new boyfriend. Back in Miami, a judge separated her case from that of Joslin and Caracciolo and set it for trial first. The proceedings began a year later.

The prosecution kept its strategy close to the vest. Only in opening statements did Joyce's attorney Alan Ross learn the state's theory: Stanley Cohen's wife had hired three hit men to kill her husband. The case hung on scant hard evidence; the revolver, after all, was free of fingerprints, probably wiped clean with a Kleenex. A tissue similar to the remnants stuck in the hammer of the gun had been found in Joyce's bathroom wastebasket, with nasal mucus and gunshot residue on it -- "the single most damaging evidence in this case," Kastrenakes said in his opening argument. Detectives had swabbed Joyce's hands the morning of the murder; Metro-Dade Police criminalist Gopinath Rao testified that Joyce's hands held traces of "blowback" from a discharged gun. But that evidence was inconsistent with Joyce herself firing a weapon, he said. Rather, it was consistent with her standing near the gun when it was fired. Kastrenakes argued that the residue could have been transferred to her hands when she wiped down the gun.

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