Murder-for-hire case shown on 'Cops' heads to third trial

AP News
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Posted: Jun 02, 2017 4:09 PM
Murder-for-hire case shown on 'Cops' heads to third trial

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Prosecutors appeared cocky during Dalia Dippolito's second trial on charges she tried to hire a hitman to kill her newlywed husband, a case that gained international attention when video of the former escort's alleged solicitation became an internet sensation and appeared on the TV shows "Cops" and "20/20."

After getting slapped by a 3-3 hung jury last December, assistant state attorneys Craig Williams and Laura Laurie will likely call more than two witnesses this time.

They made it clear in pretrial motions that they will present a more robust case, perhaps even calling her ex-husband, convicted conman Michael Dippolito. Jury selection began Friday in Dippolito's third trial.

That's what the case's original prosecutors did during Dalia Dippolito's 2011 trial, which resulted in a quick conviction that was overturned on appeal because of jury selection issues. But in the retrial, Williams and Laurie relied primarily on videotape of Dippolito's alleged solicitation and testimony by the fake hit man, Officer Widy Jean. That strategy backfired as Dippolito's new defense team attacked the Boynton Beach police investigation.

Defense attorneys Brian Claypool and Craig Rosenfeld said detectives set up their client and cut corners to impress "Cops" producers, who happened to be in town when the case broke in the summer of 2009. They argued detectives hoped the TV show would make them famous -- a contention that apparently swayed some jurors.

Still, Claypool and Rosenfeld don't plan to refight the last war, either. They want to call a body language expert to testify that Dippolito didn't mean it when she told Jean she wanted her husband killed. They also have an expert who would testify Dippolito suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of domestic abuse, making her susceptible to manipulation by detectives and their informant.

Judge Glenn Kelley ruled Thursday the domestic abuse expert can testify. He said the body language expert can also testify if it's part of an entrapment defense but said that probably means Dippolito must testify. That would allow prosecutors to raise her previous contention she was acting during her meeting with Jean in hopes of starring in a reality TV show with her husband. That defense flopped in her first trial.

Kelley barred both sides from discussing the case, but court documents and pretrial hearings reveal their likely strategies. Dippolito, 34, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of solicitation of first-degree murder.

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THE PROSECUTION

The prosecution's best evidence remains Dippolito's 23-minute videotaped conversation with Jean as they sat in the detective's car. She appeared to accept Jean's price of $7,000, then discussed scenarios for the killing, including staging a robbery outside a bank. They settled on a fake burglary at the couple's townhouse while she exercised at her gym. Before she exited the car, Jean asked if she definitely wanted her husband dead.

"I'm positive, like 5,000 percent sure," she replied.

They also have video of her reaction days later after detectives strung crime scene tape around the townhouse, called her back from the gym and said her husband had been shot dead. She fell sobbing into a detective's arms, but prosecutors contend no tears were shed.

They plan to bolster their case by playing her interview with detectives after the pretend slaying. It shows her suggesting possible killers, including her husband's former crime associates. They brought a handcuffed Jean before her and said he was their suspect. She denied knowing him. They then revealed Jean was an undercover officer, their conversations were recorded and arrested her. She cried, "I didn't do anything."

Michael Dippolito, who says he met his former wife when he hired her for sex and then fell in love, testified in 2011 that before her arrest someone planted drugs inside his truck in an attempt to get his probation revoked. He said he never suspected his wife until detectives told him about her conversation with Jean, saying, "I thought we had a pretty good thing going."

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THE DEFENSE

Claypool and Rosenfeld didn't dispute the Jean video during the last trial, but argued it came after Dalia Dippolito had been pushed, cajoled and threatened by her former lover Mohammed Shihadeh, who alerted detectives about her alleged determination to hire a hitman. They pointed to a meeting the two had inside a Chili's restaurant just before she met with Jean. It wasn't recorded, violating police protocols.

Detectives say their recording equipment broke, but Claypool told jurors department records show no repairs or replacements. He contends the recordings were destroyed because they show Dippolito wanted out but Shihadeh threatened her. He denies that, but says detectives told him he faced arrest if he stopped assisting.

Kelley told Claypool he won't be able to argue, as he did, that an acquittal would tell police nationally to end misconduct. Kelley said Claypool must focus on the Boynton Beach investigation.

The trial is expected to last up to three weeks, after six jurors and alternates are chosen from an initial pool of 300 prospects.