The Imperfect Murder
Miami homicide detective Jon Spear pointed at the video camera and asked, "Is that thing off?" In a fenced area just outside Miami Police Department headquarters, in November 1993, WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Gail Bright and cameraman Mario Hernandez were winding up an interview about one of Miami's most notorious murders of the Eighties: the 1986 slaying of construction magnate Stanley Cohen.
From the start Stanley's wife Joyce had been a prime suspect. But at her trial in 1989 the prosecution had gambled on a star witness, Frank Zuccarello, who testified that she had hired three hit men to kill her husband; he'd been one of them. A jury convicted Joyce of conspiracy and murder, and a judge sentenced her to life in prison. She won't be eligible for parole until 2014, by which time she'll be 64 years old. Prosecutors took two years to negotiate second-degree murder pleas with the other two men, each of whom received a 40-year sentence.
Zuccarello had been arrested four days after Stanley Cohen's murder on an unrelated home-invasion robbery charge. Hoping for leniency, he quickly volunteered to police that he'd taken part in dozens of robberies. Weeks later he added that he could provide information about a few murders as well, including Stanley Cohen's.
The state eventually offered him full immunity in the Cohen case and a sweet deal for the robberies he'd admitted. With that guarantee he confessed his involvement in the slaying. By the time of Joyce Cohen's murder trial, he'd served two years in prison on the lesser charges and was already free.
Then in August 1993, a book about the case was published. Written by Miami attorney Carol Soret Cope, In the Fast Lane: A True Story of Murder in Miami disclosed information not previously reported -- namely, that Zuccarello had failed three police lie-detector tests. With that the case was in the news again.
Details from the book, as well as an appeal prepared by Joyce Cohen's trial attorney Alan Ross, laid the foundation for Gail Bright's revisitation of the case in a high-profile Channel 10 series of reports that would air during the November ratings sweeps. Ross's appeal included newly sworn affidavits by Zuccarello's alleged accomplices: Guilty pleas notwithstanding, they had not killed Stanley Cohen. One of the convicted men, Anthony Caracciolo, had already told Bright on camera that he and his partner had entered guilty pleas rather than risk exposure to the death penalty.
In fact, Caracciolo told Bright, prosecutors had warned him and Tommy Joslin that if they didn't take the 40-year deal, the state would prosecute them under the RICO Act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) for the home-invasion robberies in which Zuccarello had implicated them and to which they had already pleaded guilty. If that happened they would spend 60 years in prison even if they won acquittals on the murder charges. So they took the deal but never admitted to the state's version of the murder case and never testified about it in court. (When a judge asked Caracciolo if anyone had coerced him into entering the guilty plea, he replied, "Not exactly." The plea was in his best interest, he said, but "not what I want to do.")
After Bright finished her interview with Detective Spear, and while cameraman Hernandez was taking extra shots for editing, the reporter casually asked the officer if he thought the accused men were really Stanley Cohen's killers. That's when Spear, referring to the camera, asked, "Is that thing off?"
Hernandez later recalled that Bright told him then: "Turn it off, turn it off." He stopped rolling tape. Once he did, Spear, who retired in 1995, stunned them with his answer.
"Well, it didn't happen that way," he reportedly told Bright.
"What didn't happen that way?" she asked.
"The reason you have all these questions is because we believed all along that Joyce killed her husband, but we didn't have the evidence to back it up."
"So you're telling me that Joyce shot her husband?"
"Well, are you telling me that those three guys were not there? Is that what you're telling me?"
"That's right, they weren't there. But if you ever tell anybody that, I'll deny it."
Bright recounted that she had asked how someone could testify to facts he couldn't have known. Spear's response, she said, was nonspecific and hypothetical. No names or cases were mentioned. "It's simple," he allegedly explained. "You walk into a jail cell, you know, the file's on the table, you go to the bathroom for 30 minutes, they familiarize -- they know the routine, and you go from there."
Bright had a number of days to prepare the series, which would also feature a jailhouse interview with Joyce Cohen. In an effort to corroborate Spear's comments, she interviewed David Waksman, the original Dade assistant state attorney on the case. Was it at all possible, she later recalled asking him, that Joyce Cohen had been framed? He said it was; but later that day he called her and said, "Look, we've been friends a long time. Don't put that on the air." Reached by New Times four weeks ago, Waksman said he didn't believe Bright asked him whether Cohen could have been "framed." She might have asked if he thought Cohen wasn't involved in the murder. "I have a standard answer," he said. "I wasn't there, and anything's possible when you're dealing with humans."
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.
I was that writer whose name she couldn't remember. As we visited the Aronow crime scene, we chatted about other Miami murder mysteries. It was I who broached the Cohen case. The Broward prosecutor, Brian Cavanagh (about whom I'd written earlier), had suggested to the Broward Sheriff's Office in 1996 that I meet with Anthony Caracciolo and Tommy Joslin before they testified to a grand jury investigating the 1984 murder of a man named Charles Hodek. Cavanagh thought I'd be interested in writing about that case and how it intersected with Cohen's. I spent a couple of hours over two days talking with them about the developer's murder. I told this to Bright, who nodded but said nothing.
About a month later, Joyce Cohen wrote to Bright from the Broward Correctional Institution, again denying she'd killed her husband, denying any connection with the alleged hit men, and pleading for help. They hadn't communicated since Bright's 1993 story. Bright didn't respond to the letter, but she did finally tell the station's vice president and general manager, John Garwood, about her lingering doubts. Garwood suggested she might face criminal prosecution for having withheld potential evidence. In fact, she told Ross, she felt Garwood was "advising [me] not to go forward with the information." Garwood, through his assistant, said he would not comment on the record about the story.
By late June, according to Bright's statement, she finally confessed her concerns to Dade Assistant State Attorney David Waksman, who suggested she write to Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. (In fact, Waksman tells New Times he told Bright to phone Rundle or he'd make the call himself. He called Rundle the following day to confirm Bright had done so.)
Bright now went to her current news director, Bill Pohovey, who agreed that she should come forward. The reporter called Rundle, and the two women met. Later that day, after Rundle consulted with the attorney assigned to previous Cohen case appeals, she told the reporter she should feel free to tell Alan Ross anything.
At 5:25 a.m. on March 7, 1986, Joyce Cohen dialed 911, sobbing hysterically that her husband had been shot. Police arrived minutes later at the Cohens' coral-rock mansion on South Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove. In the master bedroom they found Stanley Cohen nude, face down in the couple's four-poster brass bed, a sheet covering his lower body. A blood-soaked towel over the back of his head covered three bullet wounds; a fourth bullet had grazed his scalp. Joyce told the officers she'd been downstairs in the back of the house, had heard a noise, and seen two shadowy figures leave through the front door.
Stanley was 52 years old, heavy set, nearly seventeen years older than his pretty, fourth wife of eleven years, who had been a secretary with his firm. He was a self-made man who had delivered newspapers and washed dishes as a teenager growing up in Miami. His company, SAC Construction, was responsible for building more than twenty Dade public schools, South Shore Hospital in Miami Beach, the Third District Court of Appeal building, and various stripmalls. Joyce, born in a small Illinois town, had been left at an orphanage by her mother. When she was twelve years old, she was taken in as a foster child by a wealthy family. But when that family left Illinois two years later, the state forced them to relinquish custody of Joyce, and a poor aunt and uncle took over her care.
In the Eighties Stanley and Joyce Cohen had lived the high life, spent and consumed and entertained conspicuously, according to Carol Soret Cope's book, and partied with cocaine in the Grove and in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they owned a 600-acre ranch. A confidential informant told Miami police before Joyce's trial that Stanley had kept a large supply of cocaine in the cellar of his Coconut Grove home, implying that he was a drug dealer; that he had used cocaine three or four times per week until a heart attack forced him to stop; and that his wife used it constantly.
Cohen left assets totaling $13 million, but after debts and obligations, his net worth was probably less than $2 million. He had willed Joyce most of his fortune. But his two children from a previous marriage suspected she was involved in his death. Five days after the murder, Gerri Cohen Helfman, an anchor at WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), and Gary Cohen, a local tax attorney, successfully petitioned Dade County Circuit Court to freeze their father's estate.
Detectives had their suspicions, too. Joyce had appeared to be high the morning of the murder, according to officers who'd responded to her 911 call. Though she claimed she'd been awake all night -- folding clothes for a garage sale, she said -- she could account for only about half an hour. (Her psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Cohn, said at the trial that Joyce had once attempted suicide with an overdose of Halcion, a then commonly prescribed sleeping pill since shown to cause amnesia and paranoia, especially when mixed with alcohol or stimulants like cocaine. He added that Joyce told him she had continued taking Halcion for her sleep problems, even after the overdose, drank four or five drinks a day, and used cocaine.)
At Miami police headquarters, where she'd gone voluntarily the morning of Cohen's murder, Detective Spear asked Joyce when she'd last had sex with her husband (he considered sex a relationship's barometer), and Joyce exploded as she realized she was under suspicion. She refused to allow officers to search her house and left police headquarters to meet with attorney Ross, according to Cope's book. The detectives back on the scene had no recourse but to leave and prepare a search warrant for a judge to sign. A coroner had not yet arrived to examine the body, and the delay of some six hours made it difficult to determine the time of death. Later that day Joyce returned voluntarily to the station for questioning, and this time Ross was with her.
While officers waited outside the residence for the search warrant, however, they found a .38-caliber pistol in a fern on the ground below an upstairs bedroom window. The gun was clean of fingerprints; two bits of Kleenex stuck in the hammer suggested it had been wiped down. Lab tests later proved it to be the murder weapon. And the gun belonged not to any alleged hit man, but to Stanley Cohen.
It was four days later that Frank Zuccarello was arrested in Hallandale in connection with an unrelated home-invasion robbery. Zuccarello was then 21 years old and lived with his grandparents in Hollywood. He was handsome, with carefully styled jet-black hair and a trim mustache. His manner was pleasant, not the usual demeanor of a thug. He did, however, have three previous adult arrests and a running feud with the Hallandale Police Department. Afraid because he now faced serious prison time, Zuccarello knew he could get his best deal on the pending charges if he cooperated with the police, so he gushed. He admitted he was part of a gang that had committed dozens of violent crimes (though he said he himself had never used violence), especially home-invasion robberies, in Dade and Broward. The gang targeted drug dealers for drugs, cash, and cars.
Robbery cops from both Dade and Broward began to queue up at the Broward County Jail, hoping the young man would provide information about their unsolved cases. Three weeks later, on April 4, Metro-Dade Police robbery unit Det. Joe Gross listened as Zuccarello listed 29 robberies and five murders he knew about. And, he said, he knew something about Joyce Cohen: He, Tommy Joslin, and Anthony Caracciolo had gone to Coconut Grove in January 1986 to meet a woman who was setting up a robbery in an expensive house near Coconut Grove. She had often called Caracciolo's apartment in Hallandale; Zuccarello had answered the phone on five separate occasions, and the woman identified herself as Mrs. Cohen. Though he hadn't met her, he identified a photo of her for Gross and said she was the same woman he'd seen conversing with Caracciolo in the Grove.
That the wife of a prominent developer was helping thugs stage robberies sounded peculiar. Gross's superior, Sgt. James Wander, later testified during a pretrial deposition that Gross told him that day: "You won't believe it. He says he knows something about the Cohen murder." Wander had replied, "Sure, what next?"
Zuccarello so far had only acknowledged that he knew about the Cohen murder. But he told Gross he had information about another victim who had been slain in a car in the parking lot of a club in the south Broward city of Pembroke Park. Police matched that information to the murder of Charles Hodek. Zuccarello didn't know who pulled the trigger, he said, but ten days later he gave a recorded statement to the Broward Sheriff's Office, naming Tommy Joslin's father, a reputed mob figure, as the killer.
Tommy Joslin had fled the state and wasn't arrested until 1987. Once in custody, however, he told Broward Sheriff's Office Det. Tony Fantigrassi that someone else had shot Hodek and named the killer. When the detective returned to question Zuccarello, he admitted he had lied. Joslin's statement was correct, he now said. (Both men became state's witnesses before the Hodek murder grand jury in 1996.)
Within two weeks of Zuccarello's about-face, Dade prosecutors summoned Fantigrassi to meet with them. Cohen co-prosecutor John Kastrenakes was there, Fantigrassi says. (Kastrenakes denies such a meeting occurred, but Fantigrassi has the prosecutor's business card stapled to his notes of the meeting.) The Dade officials suggested that Fantigrassi had misunderstood Zuccarello's statement, Fantigrassi recalls; in turn, he threatened to testify at Joyce Cohen's trial that Dade County's star witness had a credibility problem in Broward. But prosecutors never called Fantigrassi to the stand, nor did they mention to Joyce Cohen's attorney a word about Zuccarello's inconsistent statements. Only in 1996, after Broward finally indicted the man Joslin had named in Hodek's murder, and the police reports became public record, did Alan Ross read them.
According to City of Miami police reports, Anthony Caracciolo was arrested in Hallandale on April 24, 1986, and eventually charged with four home-invasion robberies, based on information provided by Zuccarello. Caracciolo immediately admitted to the charges (and within nine months pleaded guilty to them). During questioning, however, he denied he knew Joyce Cohen or had planned a home invasion with her or was involved in her husband's murder. Sgt. James Wander, who conducted that interrogation, believed him. The following day Wander told prosecutor David Waksman that Zuccarello was "possibly embellishing" anything he might claim to know about Cohen's murder.
Up until then Miami police officials had spent their time investigating Joyce Cohen's background and friends in Miami and Colorado, trying to determine whether she had a motive for killing her husband. On May 6, Detective Spear met with Zuccarello in the Broward jail, where he was still being held. Zuccarello told Spear that the January Coconut Grove meeting had taken place outside a surf shop. The woman he'd seen there resembled Joyce Cohen, but he wasn't certain it was she. He still wasn't talking about the murder.
By now Steve Emerson, the FDLE agent, had also interviewed Zuccarello. Emerson left unimpressed and told Miami detectives and prosecutors that Zuccarello seemed to know how to tell the police what they wanted to hear. But Spear and his boss, Sgt. Steve Vinson, and Waksman disagreed. Besides, Spear was talking to Zuccarello's attorney, Bruce Raticoff, who said that his client had "very good information" about the Cohen homicide.
So the state prepared to offer Zuccarello a deal: He would plead guilty to two Dade home invasions (including charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony). The state wouldn't prosecute the two other robbery cases he was involved in and would recommend a five- to ten-year sentence. Dade prosecutors would ask Broward prosecutors not to push for additional jail time on his robbery charges there, and they agreed not to charge him in the Cohen murder.
In return Zuccarello would testify truthfully about all his criminal activities, his "truthfulness" to be determined by polygraph. Zuccarello signed the deal on June 5, 1986, and later that day Spear escorted him to Miami police headquarters.
And there Zuccarello changed his story: The Coconut Grove meeting had taken place in February or March -- not in January as he'd originally claimed. His sudden, improved recollection was a boon for the prosecution. Joyce Cohen, it turned out, had spent all of January and most of February in Steamboat Springs. (Police files show that Spear learned about Joyce Cohen's Colorado trip after Zuccarello's first statement but before his June 5 corrected recollection. Alan Ross, Cohen's attorney, reviewed those files last year and now says, "I think Spear came back and confronted Zuccarello with that problem, and it was my impression Zuccarello accommodated him.")
Zuccarello next told Spear he was now certain it was Joyce Cohen he'd seen at the Grove meeting. And for the first time he talked about murder: Immediately after that meeting, Caracciolo had informed him that Joyce had changed the plan. She now wanted the man in the house killed. Detective Spear drove Zuccarello through Coconut Grove neighborhoods and wrote in his report that Zuccarello tentatively identified the Cohen house. Spear noted that he hadn't clued in Zuccarello about which house it might be, but by then the murder had received overwhelming media coverage, and newspapers had printed the address, at a corner of two prominent streets in the Grove.
Back at headquarters, Spear called Zuccarello's attorney and asked him to be present while his client made a full statement. When Bruce Raticoff arrived, he was informed of the inconsistencies Zuccarello had made over the previous two months, Spear wrote in his report. Would Raticoff talk to him? The lawyer agreed, and after talking to Zuccarello, he said his client wanted to tell everything he knew.
And the story changed again. This time, Zuccarello told the detective, the Coconut Grove meeting had occurred on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 4, two and a half days before the murder, and that Joyce was going to pay the three of them (Zuccarello, Caracciolo, and Joslin) a total of $150,000 in cocaine to kill her husband. On March 6, Zuccarello said, Anthony Caracciolo called Joyce, who was waiting at a public phone, and confirmed that the murder would take place after midnight. Zuccarello drove Caracciolo and Joslin to the Cohen house in a Chevy El Camino, arriving at about 2:00 a.m. Joyce greeted them at the front door. Zuccarello waited outside while Joslin and Caracciolo went inside. Five to ten minutes later, he heard two shots. When the three men were back in the car, Caracciolo said he'd shot Stanley Cohen in the head with Cohen's own gun.
Miami police housed Zuccarello in the Dade County Jail for two nights, then brought him back to the police station on June 7 to take a polygraph. But first Zuccarello and Raticoff huddled alone for an hour. After that meeting Raticoff stunned the detectives: His client, he said, wasn't at the murder scene at all and had played no part in Cohen's murder. What he knew about the murder he'd learned from Caracciolo and Joslin. During a polygraph test that lasted ten hours, Zuccarello repeatedly denied his involvement. The examiner concluded that he was withholding information.
The deal might have looked dead, but the Miami detectives were now optimistic that, in light of the failed polygraph, Zuccarello would revert to his previous statement and admit his involvement. They shipped him back to the Broward jail. Eleven days later he returned to Miami.
Saturday, June 21, was a very long day of questioning. In another polygraph test Zuccarello again maintained he'd played no part in the murder, and again the examiner concluded his answers were deceptive. Finally Zuccarello apologized and told Spear he had been present during the murder after all. He said he'd heard Caracciolo fire two or three shots. He also recalled a meeting between Caracciolo and Joyce that he now said took place at a 7-Eleven in North Miami Beach.
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?"
"And that she would be back later?"
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.
Defense attorney Ross countered with another explanation, one that Rao admitted was also possible: Joyce Cohen had touched her husband's body when she found him mortally wounded in their bed. Ross argued that Joyce blew her nose into that Kleenex, transferring the gunshot residue from her hands.
Ross spent two days grilling star witness Frank Zuccarello and pointing out every inconsistency in his story. Was he certain he'd seen a 2:08 readout on the El Camino's digital clock? Ross introduced a photo of the car's dashboard: The clock was analog.
The attorney desperately tried to have polygraph reports admitted as evidence. Zuccarello might have flunked three tests, but Joyce Cohen had passed two administered by private polygraphers favored by Miami police. The prosecutors objected to the admission, and Judge Fredricka Smith sustained the objection.
The time of death was another issue at trial. Joyce's refusal to allow a search of her house had prevented Dade Chief Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Wetli from having quick access to the body. He'd said at a pretrial deposition that Stanley Cohen had died between midnight and 6:00 a.m., but he couldn't be more specific. When paramedics arrived at 5:30 a.m., however, they'd tried to revive Stanley with electrical shocks. Their efforts suggested he'd been shot a very short time before; three point-blank shots to the brain should have been almost instantly fatal. How then could the prosecution support Zuccarello's claim that the murder took place three hours earlier?
Moreover, a forensic expert hired by the defense testified that once the heart stops pumping, "lividity," or deep purple discoloration of the skin where the blood settles, begins within half an hour. After three hours lividity becomes permanent and obvious. But none of the detectives or rescue workers in the house at 5:30 a.m. reported any discoloration. Nor did a detective who examined the body at 6:53 a.m. Nor had Wetli reported lividity in his photos of the body.
Wetli took the stand to address the lividity issue after the defense expert testified. The medical examiner said he'd reviewed photos of the body subsequent to that defense testimony -- and now he could detect lividity. He revised his estimated time of death to be between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m., and Ross protested bitterly that he had changed his analysis to match Zuccarello's testimony.
Prosecutor Kastrenakes now downplays the testimony of the witnesses who said they hadn't seen lividity that early morning. "Don't rely on people who aren't trained" to look for signs of lividity, he told New Times. But Tony Fantigrassi of the Broward Sheriff's Office says, "I would like to think paramedics could recognize a body that was dead for half an hour as opposed to three hours."
In his closing argument Kastrenakes said it mattered little who pulled the trigger. If Joyce Cohen wiped down the gun, she was guilty of murder, regardless. The jury deliberated eight hours before returning guilty verdicts against her on all counts: murder, conspiracy to murder, and display of a firearm in commission of a felony.
That day Det. Jon Spear told the Miami Herald: "We in homicide have sort of a built-in sonar. I can sometimes talk to people and know in a couple of minutes whether they're lying to me or not. I felt Joyce Cohen was lying to me."
"All things equal out," he added. "I'm a firm believer in What goes around, comes around."
A week after Gail Bright gave her statement this past July, defense attorney Ross told New Times he called Spear. "Jon and I always got along," Ross said. "Spear answers and says, 'I already know why you're calling. I've already been down to speak to [Assistant State Attorney] Abe Laeser. I did tell [Bright] something along those lines, that those guys weren't involved. But that's my personal opinion.'"
"Jon, apparently you don't understand this," Ross said he replied. "As lead investigator, it had better not be your opinion that the woman was convicted on perjured testimony."
When Ross prepared Cohen's first unsuccessful appeal in 1993, he sent a private investigator, Eric Zeid, to visit Zuccarello in Tampa, where he now lives. They talked, but Zuccarello confessed nothing. Following Bright's July statement, Ross figured he'd try again.
Zuccarello, who testified in 1996 before a grand jury in the murder of Charles Hodek, is currently a potential witness in the trial, which is scheduled to begin in March. Tony Fantigrassi, now a captain with the Broward Sheriff's Office, remains interested in his credibility. At an August 12 meeting, Ross says, Fantigrassi suggested that Zeid surreptitiously tape a new conversation with Zuccarello. State law requires the consent of all parties, but law-enforcement agencies are exempt. With authorization from the Broward Sheriff's Office, the coast was clear to proceed.
This time, Ross says, Zeid got very close. Ross recalls some of the conversation:
Zeid: "It's about karma, doing the right thing."
Zuccarello: "If I did the right thing, I'd piss off a lot of people down there."
"To me that's a confession," Ross argues. He also says that Zuccarello told Zeid the next day he'd spent an hour and ten minutes on the phone "with Washington." Ross infers this to mean that he spoke with co-prosecutor Kevin DiGregory, who followed Janet Reno to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Zuccarello added that he wanted to talk to his old girlfriend "before I do the right thing."
"I knew one day the veneer would crack," says Ross. "I thought it would happen when Zuccarello would get a little older, maybe have a life-threatening disease. He'd look in the mirror, then he'd call and say, 'I want to tell the truth.'"
Cohen co-prosecutor Kastrenakes now acknowledges that Zuccarello wasn't the star witness he was made out to be. But he stands firmly behind the convictions and maintains that Zuccarello testified truthfully. Since Bright's statement, Zuccarello has sworn an affidavit to Dade prosecutors reaffirming his testimony: "I never said or even suggested to any person that my trial testimony was false."
Fantigrassi, on the other hand, always harbored doubts about Zuccarello. Today he says he'd like to see Joslin's and Caracciolo's convictions overturned. He believes Joyce Cohen killed her husband alone. The murder scene, he says, looked staged: the wiped revolver, a bedside lamp on the floor, the pistol found below the window. "You're hired to commit a murder," Fantigrassi muses. "Wouldn't you bring the weapon of your choice? The scene is indicative of a domestic-related homicide. They're not well thought out. I've seen it in the past. It's common."
Fantigrassi says he has lobbied for Joslin and Caracciolo, so far without success. They are guilty of home-invasion robberies, he admits, but everyone else in their gang, twelve years later, has been released. Some have even committed other crimes since and have already gotten out for those.
"I'm not saying we're angels or anything like that," remarks Anthony Caracciolo, now 37 years old, sitting at a table in the Everglades Correctional Institution, a state prison in West Dade. He talks at high speed because the prison allows just one hour for press interviews. In 1995, he claims, FDLE agent Steve Emerson told him: "'You need to talk to Spear.' I talk to Spear, and he says, 'I got problems with things. Let me run things by Kastrenakes and I can come see you.'
"He said we didn't do it, Joyce did it by herself. But Kastrenakes must have run him off." Caracciolo says Spear never did come to see him, and when Caracciolo sent his brother to ask Spear to talk, the detective refused to speak to him as well.
Tommy Joslin is now 39 years old. In a recent interview from central Florida's Avon Park Correctional Institution, another state prison, he explains that he accepted the plea bargain because "I was scared they were going to convict me. I'd be sitting right now on death row for something I didn't do."
Something they didn't do? In a recent conversation with New Times, Abe Laeser, the assistant state attorney who supervised the prosecutors, responded to a particular question: "Did [Joyce Cohen] do it all by herself? Obviously that is a conceivable possibility. But as I sit here, I don't know." Short of a truthful statement from Cohen, Laeser added, "I'm never going to know. My instincts say that's what happened."
Suppose a judge overturns Joyce Cohen's conviction because the prosecution based its case too heavily on Frank Zuccarello's false testimony. And suppose prosecutors still believe Joyce is guilty of murder. Wouldn't a new trial be an exercise in futility for her?
Just the reverse, asserts defense attorney Ross. His eyes brightening at the thought, he says he can prove Joyce not guilty using the state's own expert witnesses from the original trial. He'd recall criminalist Rao, who said Joyce probably didn't fire the gun. He'd also bring back Wetli, the medical examiner who revised his opinion about the time of death during the course of the trial.
"I should have won the first trial," Ross says. "I was shocked by the verdict. Absolutely shocked. So I'm going back to straighten it out. This is unfinished business.
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