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A Single Hair

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Ferris exhibited his admiration of Hancock during the trial: He almost uniformly ruled against the defense. The judge allowed not only the hearsay evidence of the BSO homicide squad but also testimony of a trio of criminal snitches who claimed Rivera had confessed to them in jail. One of the inmate informants was Frank Zuccarello, then a 22-year-old, smooth-talking criminal incarcerated for committing a series of burglaries, armed kidnapping, and other offenses. After his 1986 arrest, Zuccarello cooperated with numerous law-enforcement agencies, hoping for lenient sentencing. In court Zuccarello swore that prosecutors had promised him nothing in return for testifying against Rivera, but court records tell a different story: He struck an undated plea deal with the Broward State Attorney's Office that included a clause he would cooperate fully with Sergeant Carney on several criminal cases. Also, Hancock wrote a letter on Zuccarello's behalf to the Florida Department of Corrections just a few months after Rivera's trial. Zuccarello ultimately spent just 26 months behind bars for crimes that could have put him away for life.

Since testifying against Rivera, Zuccarello has admitted he intentionally fingered the wrong man in the 1984 murder of a Hollywood man named Charles Hodek. He's also been the subject of considerable controversy -- and media publicity -- in recent years for his dubious involvement in the 1989 conviction of Joyce Cohen for the murder of her husband, Stanley. Zuccarello claimed Joyce Cohen hired him for the murder, but his failures of three lie-detector tests about his testimony in the case have recently come to light. A former TV newswoman has also come forward, claiming that the lead police investigator admitted to her that Zuccarello wasn't really involved.

Ferris says he allowed the jailhouse testimony of Zuccarello and two other inmates -- prolific burglar Peter Salerno and child molester William Moyer -- because he felt the jury had a right to hear it. Ferris also made other rulings that Rivera's attorneys say tipped the scales against the defendant. The judge: permitted the prosecution to arrange for classrooms full of children to attend the courtroom as observers. Ferris says he wanted to educate the kids about the legal process;

allowed foreman Robert Thornton to remain on the jury after an investigator for defense counsel Malavenda discovered that Thornton was a member of a special club of BSO boosters who had contributed large amounts of money to then-sheriff Nick Navarro's campaign (Navarro had been quoted extensively in newspapers saying Rivera was guilty and testified against him);

allowed the 11-year-old victim in the Green Glades attack to testify in the murder trial, against Malavenda's argument that her presence would prejudice the jury; and

denied Malavenda's motion to admit information about the February 20, 1986, abduction and murder of 29-year-old Linda Kalitan into the record. The body of Kalitan, who was also on a bicycle, was discovered in the same field where Staci was found. That still-unsolved crime occurred while Rivera was in jail.

McClain contends Ferris's very presence was a conflict -- he'd presided over Rivera's trial for the Green Glades attack and had already sentenced Rivera to life in prison for that crime. Before the murder trial, Ferris opined in the Sun-Sentinel that Rivera was an incorrigible criminal who should never be allowed to "visit this conduct on anyone else." In an appeal following Rivera's murder conviction, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Ferris's statement wasn't grounds for a new trial. Two of the nine justices dissented, saying Ferris's remarks were improper and the case should be retried.

McClain also says the high emotion and publicity swirling around the courtroom assured his client was doomed. "The case is a product of the hysteria that frequently occurred during that time period," McClain says. "The anger and passion over those cases would cloud logic. You almost have a mob hysteria develop around it."

Ferris denies that. "I don't think there was a charged atmosphere at all," he counters. "I wanted the defendant to get a fair trial at all costs, although my personal beliefs might not have been the same."

The prosecution's case may have been weak, but Rivera's defense was even worse. His alibi was suspicious and full of holes, he and almost everyone with whom he associated during that time had crack habits, and much to his dismay, his best witness was nowhere to be found when the trial began.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman