Hit or Mrs.?

According to the courts, Joyce Cohen hired three men to murder her wealthy husband. Now the entire case may be unraveling.

Bright also interviewed Miami homicide detective Jon Spear, who led the Cohen investigation. When it was done, in a fenced area just outside Miami Police Department headquarters, and while cameraman Mario Hernandez was taking extra shots for editing, Bright casually asked Detective Spear if he thought the accused men were really Stanley Cohen's killers.

According to Bright, Spear looked at the video camera and 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 name or case was 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, 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' 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 counterresponse 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.

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