When Dalia Dippolito's trial began on charges that she tried to have her husband killed, her defense attorney dropped a bombshell. Attorney Michael Salnick claimed in opening statements that Dalia's husband, Michael, had planned the whole thing in an attempt to get on reality TV.
It was a crazy defense for anyone who has watched the video of Dalia promising to pay a hit man to kill Michael. But what was odder was the trial that followed, which included no real evidence to back up the defense.
Jurors clearly didn't buy it, and it took them less than three hours Friday to
find her guilty. That's no surprise considering the wacky defense, which began during opening arguments April 26 with Salnick making promises he clearly couldn't back up.
Salnick claimed that the couple were big fans of reality TV shows like Cheaters and that Michael had prepared for his coming stardom by getting braces and liposuction. Dalia and Michael staged the whole murder-for-hire plot to get the attention they needed for their own show, Salnick claimed, and cops played right into their plan by videotaping a staged crime scene in which they tell Dalia that her husband had been shot dead.
Prosecutors called their first witness, Michael Dippolito, and Salnick spend hours grilling him on his criminal past. The only hint of the reality-TV defense came near the end of the testimony, and Michael hotly denied it.
"It's ridiculous," Michael said, shifting in the witness box and looking agitated. "We're not here because of me."
From there, jurors watched the videotape of Dalia telling the undercover cop she thought was a hit man that she was "5,000 percent sure" she wanted her husband dead. Then they watched the video of cops telling Dalia the hit had been successful, the one in which she bawled way too quickly for someone just given that kind of news. (Note to copycats: The first stage of grief is shock and denial.)
Dalia's defense consisted of three witnesses, including her mother, Randa Mohammed, who denied prosecutor's claims that Dalia was looking at funeral homes for her soon-to-be-dead husband. Salnick then called an expert in reality TV who explained that would-be contestants often do outlandish things "to become famous." A digital forensics expert followed, testifying that Dalia had done searches on her computer months earlier for how to get on reality TV.
Bob Jarvis, a legal ethics professor at Nova Southeastern University's law school, wasn't surprised by the reality TV defense. He had been following the case closely, and thought Salnick's move initially made sense.
"It's a defense that says a lot about the times we live in," Jarvis said. "I assume they had at least some basis to prove there was a reality TV connection. And really, everybody thinks they are worthy of a reality TV show these days."
Jarvis says the idea that a couple would stage a murder-for-hire plot to get on TV was reminiscent of Colorado's balloon boy or the couple that crashed a White House party, all to get on TV.
But what none of those witnesses pulled off was proving the defense Salnick promised, and many expected Dalia to take the stand and explain. Instead, Salnick rested, and jurors were clearly unimpressed with his empty defense.
What Salnick did -- promise a defense that didn't materialize -- isn't unheard of in criminal cases. But Lonny Rose, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, says Salnick risked losing the trust of jurors by failing to come through.
"One of the cardinal rules we teach in advocacy is that you don't promise the jury something that you can't prove," said Rose, director of the law school's litigation skills program.
During closing arguments, Rose says, prosecutors could've objected to Salnick's bringing up a defense that wasn't proven during the trial. But judges often overrule such objections, giving defense lawyers leeway in their arguments.
Jarvis figures what happened in Dalia's case has happened in many criminal cases before it: Perhaps Dalia told her attorney about the reality TV defense, but then evidence at the trial didn't back it up. Dalia would have made a "terrible witness," Jarvis says, so her defense rested with little to prove her side.
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Salnick didn't return a phone call to his office, and prosecutors declined to comment until after Dalia is sentenced June 16. But it's easy to speculate why prosecutors wouldn't object to Salnick's defense: He had made outlandish promises to the jury during opening statements, and during closing arguments, he was hanging himself with them.
Dippolito, meanwhile, faces up to three decades in prison for what was either a murder-for-hire plot or the worst reality-TV audition ever.