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Dalia Dippolito wins new trial as court tosses murder-for-hire conviction

There were international headlines about Dalia Dippolito's alleged murder-for-hire scheme that targeted her husband in Boynton Beach five years ago.

And because of the great media hype, Dippolito wanted the judge to let attorneys question potential jurors individually, about their awareness of the case before her 2011 trial.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath's refusal to allow it was a mistake, so Dippolito's conviction and 20-year prison sentence must be tossed because the jury pool was tainted, the 4th District Court of Appeal said Wednesday.

The infamous 31-year-old defendant "just about jumped out of her seat" when told she won a new trial, said attorney Robert L. Sirianni Jr.

"She was real happy and thankful," he said of his client, put on house arrest on $500,000 bail while her challenge was pending. "She wasn't provided a fair trial from day one."

Dippolito remains charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder with a firearm, and "the state will proceed with the case," said Mike Edmondson, spokesman for Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg.

The jury found Dippolito guilty of paying a Boynton Beach undercover cop, posing as a hit man, $3,000 to kill then-spouse Michael Dippolito. A video of police officers approaching Dippolito at a staged murder scene in August 2009 went viral and was played at her trial.

Juror Linda Kniffin, of Lake Worth, said she was surprised and disappointed to hear her panel's verdict was overturned, "because the evidence was so clear that she did it."

Kniffin said she couldn't speak for the other jurors, but said she saw no indication they had been exposed to publicity surrounding the case before jury selection. Kniffin added she had "never heard of Dalia Dippolito until I went for jury duty."

It was the dramatic footage of an apparently grief-stricken Dippolito, viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, that helped persuade the jury to return a conviction.

Jurors rejected Dippolito's core defense — the episode was a ploy by Michael Dippolito, a convicted felon, to get on reality TV and become famous.

Prosecutors Elizabeth Parker and Laura Laurie said during the trial that Dalia Dippolito planned the killing to keep her husband's townhouse and avoid a $91,000 debt to him. Laurie told the jury Dippolito was a "cold, calculated" woman who used sex to get what she wanted.

Parker, who left the State Attorney's Office for a private criminal defense practice, now represents Michael Dippolito. On Wednesday, she said he's upset there will be another trial.

"He hoped for closure," Parker said, noting her own disappointment because, "I've never seen a case with this amount of overwhelming evidence against a defendant."

Colbath called Dippolito "pure evil" at her sentencing and said he doubted her chances to overturn the conviction. But the appellate court said Dippolito was denied a fair trial when Colbath refused to grant her lawyers' request at the time to individually question prospective jurors.

Dippolito's attorneys saw that 28 of the 54 prospective jurors raised their hands when asked if they had heard about the case. The defense then said it was worried about the "contamination of the entire jury pool" if one juror mentioned something prejudicial in front of everyone else in the room.

Midway during jury selection, Colbath said none of the jurors "held any strongly held opinions on the merits of the case" and he denied the individual interviews, according to the appellate court's opinion, written by Judge Martha C. Warner, and also signed by Chief Judge Dorian K. Damoorgian and Judge Melanie G. May.

When Dippolito's lawyers questioned the prospective jurors about their knowledge of the case, one juror mentioned an allegation reported in the news that Dippolito "had tried to poison her husband with antifreeze."

Colbath, who had already ruled that particular issue wouldn't come up at the trial, denied Dippolito's request to boot the entire pool and declare a mistrial.

But Judge Warner wrote Dippolito "had the right to ask these jurors what specific information they had learned from the media; the jurors' show of hands was insufficient to protect her right to a fair and impartial jury."

Florida Assistant Attorney General John M. Klawikofsky had argued there was nothing wrong with questioning the prospective jurors all together in the same room, and it did no harm when one person who wasn't selected told everyone she had read Dippolito allegedly once tried to poison her husband.

"This was an isolated comment from one juror that did not taint the entire panel," Klawikofsky wrote. And even if there was an error, it was harmless "in light of the video evidence of Appellant committing the crime," he added.

But the appellate court rejected that argument.

"Because it involved an attempt to kill the same victim, it was closely related to the pending charges and could have prejudiced jurors in rendering their verdict," Warner wrote. "Even though appellant had not been formally charged with a crime based on the alleged poisoning, we find the comment analogous to comments informing prospective jurors of a defendant's criminal history, other pending charges, or arrests."

In her appeal, Dippolito's attorneys raised three other issues for the court's consideration; but none were cited in Wednesday's opinion.

The defense had claimed Colbath also erred by allowing video testimony against Dippolito from her former lover and police informant, Mohamed Shihadeh, who was available to appear live in court.

Dippolito also complained her trial improperly included allegations not part of the state's case, including claims of her previously planting drugs in her husband's car.

And Dippolito said the judge failed to order a mistrial based on a claim that then-Chief Assistant State Attorney Parker's closing argument was improper.

"From its inception to its conclusion, Ms. Dippolito's trial was so suffused with legal error and infringement on her constitutional rights that the only fair outcome is to reverse her conviction and send her case back to the lower court for a new trial," attorney Andrew Greenlee said last year.

Concerning Dippolito's other claims, Klawikofsky defended the prosecutor's closing statement and argued all trial evidence was properly admitted. The state, he wrote, successfully proved Dippolito "wanted to have her husband eliminated."

Asked for his reaction Wednesday, Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz issued a statement backing prosecutors and his department.

"We believe we have done our part and will continue to cooperate with what we believe will be a dispassionate and just judicial process," Katz said.

Parker, with writer Mark Ebner, authored a book published this year titled, "Poison Candy: The Murderous Madam: Inside Dalia Dippolito's Plot to Kill."

"I'm willing to assist the state with anything they need for the prosecution," Parker said.

Staff writer Brett Clarkson and staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report., 561-243-6642 or Twitter @SSCourts

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