Hit or Mrs.?

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

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 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 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 electric 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 and 3 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.

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."

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