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."

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Arthur Jay Harris