Mistrial Declared in Murder-for-Hire Case Featured On TV’s Cops

Dalia Dippolito smiles at someone in the gallery as she leaves court after the jury was sent to deliberate in her murder-for-hire retrial Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Dippolito is accused of trying to hire a hit man to murder her husband. (Lannis Waters/Palm 

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – A mistrial was declared in the trial of a Florida woman charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill her newlywed husband, a case that went viral after it was featured on the “Cops” television show.

Dalia Dippolito gave no visible response when Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley declared a mistrial after the jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked after nine hours of deliberations over the past two days.

The case spawned a special episode of the TV show “Cops” and has made international headlines for the past six years, as public interest mounted over recordings of Dippolito allegedly discussing plans to kill her husband with an undercover officer posing as a hit man.

Dippolito was convicted of solicitation to commit murder in 2011, but an appellate court overturned the conviction, leading to a second trial that ended Wednesday.

The jury informed Judge Kelley of their deadlock Tuesday night, but he urged them to return “fresh” Wednesday morning to try once more to reach a consensus.

The stalemate remained unbroken today and Judge Kelley declared a mistrial by virtue of a hung jury shortly before noon.

An anonymous ballot of the jurors was taken at the urging of the defense counsel, and it turned out that the jury was split 3-3 on whether to convict Dippolito.

The Recordings: “I’m Like 5,000 Percent Sure.”

Dippolito’s alleged plans to snuff out her spouse were reported to local enforcement in the summer of 2009 by her reputed former lover Mohamed Shihadeh, who went on to serve as a key informant in the criminal case.

Dippolito became the subject of an undercover investigation, during which an officer from the Boynton Beach Police Department posed as a hit man and told her, in a secretly recorded conversation, that he could murder her husband and make it look like a burglary.

Prosecutors alleged the officer-posing-as-a-hit man warned Dippolito that after the plan to carry out the murder was in motion, she would not have a chance to change her mind.

But Dippolito allegedly responded: “I’m determined already. I’m positive, like 5,000 percent sure.”

Recordings from the undercover investigation were published on YouTube by the Boynton Beach Police Department, and were widely viewed, with media coverage abounding.

Following her May 2011 conviction for solicitation to commit first-degree murder, the show “Cops” produced a special episode entitled “Smooth Criminal” about the case, featuring footage of Dippolito returning to her home on the day she purportedly expected her husband to be killed.

Conviction Overturned

In 2014, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal tossed out Dippolito’s conviction and 20-year prison sentence.

Dippolito’s appellate counsel from Brownstone PA, of Winter Park, Florida, successfully argued before the Fourth District that the jury selection process in the first trial was tainted.

The Fourth District ruled that during group questioning, the jury pool for the original trial heard one prospective juror comment about seeing an allegation in local media that Dippolito had previously tried to poison her husband, a claim which had already been ruled prejudicial and inadmissible.

In overturning Dippolito’s conviction, the Fourth District found that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s request to strike the jury pool once the prospective juror blurted out that comment.

The Fourth District ruling noted that the trial court had improperly denied defense counsel’s request to individually question the prospective jurors.

Citing Bolin v. State of Florida and Boggs v. State of Florida, the appellate panel found that when a jury pool is exposed to inadmissible and prejudicial evidence in the media, the trial court abuses its discretion if it does not permit individual questioning of the potential jurors.

The trial court in Dippolito’s criminal case had apparently screened the jurors for bias by simply asking them to raise their hand if they had “strong feelings” about the case following the extensive media coverage.

Though none responded in the affirmative, the Fourth District on appeal ruled: “Appellant had the right to ask these jurors what specific information they had learned from the media; [a] show of hands was insufficient to protect her right to a fair and impartial jury.”

The Retrial

Dippolito’s defense team in the retrial tried to hammer home the notion that the Boynton Beach police were running a “rogue” department willing to fabricate a case for the sake of publicity.

Defense attorneys Greg Rosenfeld and Brian Claypool criticized the quick pace of the investigation, the department’s decision to post the undercover recordings on YouTube, and the presence of the “Cops” film crew amid the late stages of the police probe.

The first witness called by Dippolito’s counsel was Mohamed Shihadeh, the informant and reputed ex-lover of Dippolito, who contributed to the investigation by introducing Dippolito to the officer-posing-as-a-hit man.

On the stand, Shihadeh re-affirmed his stance from a February hearing: that he did not set out to get Dippolito in trouble when he initiated contact with police.

Crouched over the witness stand, wearing a white T-shirt, Shihadeh testified that he told police in his initial contact that the relationship seemed abusive. He said he told the officers: “I know a woman that’s being hurt by her husband and you know, she needs help. And she feels like her only solution is … for her to be dead or for him to be killed.”

Though he participated in several coordinated phone calls to Dippolito with law enforcement listening in, Shihadeh testified that the Boynton Beach Police Department placed cameras inside his vehicle without his knowledge and threatened to prosecute him if he did not cooperate with the murder-for-hire investigation.

He claimed he first found out about the hidden cameras when his friend called him up and told him he “was on YouTube.”

The defense went on to make use of some legal ammunition that it didn’t have in the first trial, in the form of testimony from retired Boynton Beach police Sergeant Frank Ranzie.

Ranzie, a veteran officer, worked on the Dippolito case and appeared repeatedly in the “Cops” episode about her arrest. He was fired by Boynton in 2013 for allegedly viewing porn on a work computer, but an arbitrator ordered that he be reinstated and allowed to retire, finding that it was uncertain whether a family member was the one who viewed the illicit content on his laptop.

Ranzie appeared to have no qualms about criticizing his former employer’s handling of the Dippolito investigation.

Defense counsel asked him on the stand whether he felt the investigation was “compromised” by police missteps, and Ranzie, with a stoic voice, replied, “Yes.”

He took issue with the department’s alleged failure to produce tapes of several conversations between Shihadeh and Dippolito, and added that a supervising sergeant in the Boynton Beach Police Department chastised him after he tried to secure a piece of recording equipment needed for proper monitoring of the subjects in the investigation.

According to Ranzie, the supervising sergeant proclaimed in a room full of detectives that “it’s his fucking investigation.”

Ranzie further testified that he was not happy with the decision to let a TV crew linger around him, but he had no choice in the matter, having been directed by a superior officer to participate in the “Cops” filming.

It “changes the way people act … interact with one another when there’s a camera with a bright light standing next to you,” Ranzie said.

Absent from counsel’s argument was a previous defense that the husband, Michael Dippolito, was well aware of the hit man plot and induced Dalia into cooperating with it, in a bid to gain reality TV fame. Michael, who Dalia has accused of hiding his past fraud conviction from her, did not take the stand in the retrial, but he reportedly testified in the 2011 proceedings that he was not involved the supposed reality-TV show scheme.

For its part, the prosecution had a short list of witnesses including lead detective Alex Moreno and Widy Jean, the officer who posed as a hit man.

Wrapping up its case after two days, the prosecutors, as expected, relied heavily on the undercover recording in which Jean sits with Dippolito in a pharmacy parking lot, discussing the details of the alleged murder plot.

In the recording, Dippolito is heard discussing her husband’s morning dog-walking routine, his “tender points” from a recent back surgery, and the specifics of their home’s alarm system.

She is then heard telling the undercover officer: “When I say I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna do it.”

According to the probable cause affidavit, Jean asked Dippolito if she was sure she wanted her husband killed, and Dippolito responded, during a taped conversation, that she’d “be very happy” to have him dead.

The affidavit alleges Dippolito told the officer-posing-as-a-hit man that her husband would be withdrawing a large amount of money from a bank and could be attacked after he made the withdrawal.

She had already handed over a $1,200 down payment to her associate (now known to be the informant Shihadeh) as payment for the would-be hit man, according to prosecutors.

A point of contention deep into the retrial remained whether the jury would be allowed to see the video footage of Dippolito that later became fodder for the special episode of “Cops.”

The video shows Dippolito arriving home to a bogus murder scene in August 2009, on the day she allegedly wanted her husband killed. At the scene, staged by police, Dippolito is misled to believe her husband was fatally shot.

The judge ultimately allowed the prosecution to show the video, and jurors were able to see the videotaped scene of Dippolito crying, or pretending to cry, when an officer falsely informs her that her husband was killed.

On that day, Aug. 5, 2009, after the “Cops” film crew and the Boynton Beach police secured footage of Dippolito’s reaction to the staged murder scene, she was arrested, with officers telling her that she had been caught on camera discussing a plot to murder Michael Dippolito.

Closing Arguments

During closing arguments, Craig Williams recapped the prosecution’s case in a speedy fashion, and replayed the recordings of Dippolito talking with Shihadeh and Jean.

Williams said Dippolito’s “own words, her own actions and her own intent, all day everyday” showed she was guilty.

Williams — who had taken to sitting with his head in his hand when the jury was out of the room and the defense was sparring over evidentiary matters — became animated at the end of his closing statement.

Staring down Dippolito, he raised his voice and proclaimed to the jurors that the defendant “wanted two bullets in her husband’s head.”

In its closing statement, the defense reiterated the argument that the prosecution’s case is built on a shoddy “scripted” police investigation, which was rushed to completion in less than a week, from the time Shihadeh first contacted law enforcement, to the time Dippolito was arrested.

Claypool claimed Boynton Beach had a police department “in love with publicity,” and that the contrived nature of the investigation was evident when officers installed a hidden camera in Shihadeh’s car before taking his initial statement.

“Ding ding ding. Red light going off in your head,” Claypool told the jurors. “What does that tell you? They had scripted this from the get-go. They hadn’t even spoken to this guy … and they were installing video [cameras] in his car.”

Jury Deadlock

Jurors began deliberating Tuesday around 11 a.m. They asked to again review the undercover tapes, and in response, the judge allowed several recordings to be replayed in open court through the afternoon hours.

As the evening approached, word of deadlock reached the judge’s chambers, as the jury professed it was unable to come to a unanimous decision. The defense team swiftly moved for a mistrial based on a hung jury, but Judge Kelley was initially reluctant. He instructed the jurors to come back in the morning, and reconsider the case while he handled his daily docket.

After the court closed, some red-eyed members of the press, and a bystander holding a baby behind the swarm of media gathered on the courthouse sidewalk, looked deflated by the prospect that there would be no tidy end to the drama.

Then, late morning Wednesday, Judge Kelley declared the mistrial.

Claypool teared up in a press conference, telling the media that he could count on one hand the amount of people who believed he could prevail in the case.

He maintained that the undercover videos of Dippolito were “contaminated” by “improper and illegal police practices.”

The police investigation had a “72-hour window to make this a good episode of ‘Cops,'” Claypool said, calling the mistrial “a partial victory.”

When asked about a possible third trial, Claypool said: “If they want round three, bring it on.”

On Wednesday afternoon, State Attorney Dave Aronberg released a statement stating his office intends to do just that.

“My office will retry this case at the earliest opportunity,” Aronberg said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.