There was a trial was there an error?

BOOK REVIEW

September 08, 1993|By Gene Miller | Gene Miller,Knight-Ridder News Service

For all of Dade County's storied fame as a homicidal cesspool where evildoers suck innocents down the drain, the hardback world of books offers precious few factual accounts of murder in Miami. Much of the rep is fictional hype.

To rectify this, along comes Carol Soret Cope with a study of the Joyce Cohen investigation, trial, conviction and life imprisonment, "In The Fast Lane: A True Story of Murder in Miami." It's a crackerjack.

The Widow Cohen -- sophisticated shopper, hedonist, habitue of the Biscayne Baby nightclub, owner-hostess of the Buccione restaurant -- became the instant suspect March 7, 1986, when somebody shot to death her rich builder-developer husband, Stanley, with his own gun as he lay naked in his four-poster brass bed in Coconut Grove.

Police, nonetheless, dutifully labeled the crime a "WDI," a "whodunit."

It took the state of Florida 2 1/2 years to make its case and indict.

Except for a prologue, Ms. Cope tells the tale in a clean, orderly, chronological manner -- nicely paced and suspenseful despite the known outcome.

The writing is a bit pedestrian, lacking the zing of such practitioners of fictional criminality as Elmore Leonard. But Ms. Cope compensates gloriously with a torrent of information and a fine eye.

On the Cohen nuptials: "The wedding was pure Las Vegas; a penthouse hotel suite, a civil ceremony performed by a famous pole-vaulter/preacher, uniting a divorced Catholic and thrice-divorced Jew, attending by gambling junketeers. The beautiful young bride wore a long pink, three-piece knit ensemble. The stocky, middle-aged groom wore a rust-colored leisure suit and a loud print shirt. No tie."

On the corpse after Joyce, hysterical, ordered police from the scene of the crime and refused to sign a consent-to-search form: "The cooling of the body after death, the chemical changes that cause rigidity of the muscles, the seepage of blood out of vessels and into surrounding tissues, the gravitational pull settling and staining tissues red at their lowest point -- algor mortis, rigor mortis, livor mortis -- all would continue their inexorable progress, forever altering the condition of the corpse . . . (unmeasured, unrecorded, unphotographed). With each hour that passed, evidence faded forever on what would prove to be a central issue in the crime: the precise time of death."

The cast of characters is extensive, and Ms. Cope often tells the reader exactly what people "thought," "felt" or "believed," words that set off alarm bells. Skeptical, I picked up the telephone and questioned a few of her sources. But, hey, Ms. Cope got things right. She interviewed repeatedly with a tape recorder.

The entire cast, though, won't be overjoyed. The book is gossipy as all get-out. Joyce loyalists called Gary and Gerri Cohen, children from a previous marriage, "the vultures."

The deceased, it is noted, had arranged a honeymoon trip as a wedding gift for his bride-to-be daughter. Joyce, a savvy lady who didn't want to end up in a flophouse like her mother, told the travel agent: "Cancel the travel voucher and credit the amount to my account."

With the eventual emergence of for-hire killers, the case lurched to trial in 1989: " . . . The crux of the prosecution's case against Joyce Cohen seemed to rest on the testimony of a police officer with belated recall, a jail-house rat, a medical examiner who had changed his mind after three years and a mystery man from New York [a last minute witness who heard shots at the 'right' time]."

Which, of course, makes for high drama in the courtroom. "According to Joyce, she must have found her husband's bloody murdered body about 5:19 a.m. But records showed she didn't trip the alarm that called the 911 emergency operator until 5:25 a.m., more than five full minutes later.

" 'While Stan lay bleeding, within reach of the panic button which she wanted installed and she could activate with one push!' " prosecutor Kevin DiGregory thundered at the jury. " 'Would an innocent woman wait five minutes to sound the alarm, to call 911? . . .

" 'Do you know how long five minutes is?' With that, DiGregory turned on his heel and strode back to the counsel table. He sat down and folded his arms across his chest, staring straight ahead. There was dead silence in the courtroom." For five minutes.

In startling juxtaposition, Ms. Cope reports what happens after the verdict:

Champagne for the prosecution, giddy with relief, imitating a witness, everyone howling with laughter. And misery for the defense team, worst professional experience ever, and Joyce, alone, lying in the fetal position, quite literally howling in anguish.

This is not exactly what comes to mind from the honored courtroom inscription: "We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth."

This is a first book for the author, a civil lawyer, and it is a good one.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "In the Fast Lane: A True Story of Murder in Miami"

Author: Carol Soret Cope

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 318 pages, $23

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