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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dismissed Philadelphia mob trial juror shares insights

She listened to two days of testimony in the Anthony Nicodemo murder trial last month and said she wasn't buying the defense argument that Nicodemo was carjacked and became an unwitting getaway driver in the murder of Gino DiPietro.

"The story about the carjacking was absurd," the former Common Pleas Court panelist wrote in one of several e-mail exchanges with Bigtrial.net. She also said she surmised the shooting was a mob hit even though the judge had barred any mention of organized crime. And she correctly assumed that Nicodemo was being held without bail and that he was able to afford a high priced defense attorney.

The juror agreed to share her insights from the two days she heard testimony, but asked to remain anonymous. She was the first of three jurors dismissed during the case which ended in a mistrial on May 20. Lawyers for the defense and prosecution are to meet with Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart Thursday for a status conference during which a new trial date could be set.

Nicodemo, 42, has been held without bail since his arrest on the day of the shooting, December 12, 2012.

"During opening remarks, Brian McMonagle (Nicodemo's lawyer) was wearing a suit that was very, very expensive...and a watch that cost more than my 2011 car," the juror wrote. "Therefore, I deduced that he was not a public defender."

Using the same reasoning, she said, led her to believe that "the defendant had the access to cash necessary to employ" an expensive attorney. And she wondered, "Where did this money come from? I had my suspicions."

She said she assumed Nicodemo was being held without bail because while he appeared each day in court in a dress shirt and slacks ("business casual clothes" in the words of the juror), she noticed that he was wearing "a pair of pristine white sneakers."

"I couldn't imagine Mr. Nicodemo would come to court in sneakers unless he was being kept in jail," she wrote. "Why wouldn't he be out on bail? I knew he had access to money, so he either was a flight risk or a very dangerous person (or both)."

The panelist said Nicodemo had smiled at her during the jury selection process. But during the trial, which included testimony about the gangland-style slaying of DiPietro in the 2800 block of South Iseminger Street, she said she would look toward the defense table and Nicodemo "confronted me with a smug, steely gaze."

The juror said "he appeared unmoved by the heinous details of the crime and the disturbing testimony of several witnesses."

The juror was one of 14 chosen to hear testimony in the case. Judge Minehart opted to go with just two alternates during the trial, a move that would eventually lead to the mistrial when a third juror was dismissed on Dec. 20. She heard the bulk of the prosecution's case before being dismissed, including the testimony of two witnesses who saw the shooter.

One witness, a letter carrier working in the neighborhood, said he heard a shot, ran toward the sound, heard a second shot and then saw a gunman in a hoody fire four more shots into DiPietro who was lying in the street beside his pickup truck. The shooting occurred shortly before 3 p.m.The gunman then fled in the opposite direction, the mailman testified.

At that point, the shooter ran past another witness who said he saw the gunman jump into a black Honda Pilot SUV which appeared to be parked with the motor running. The vehicle sped away, but the witness got the license tag.

The Honda Pilot was registered to Anthony Nicodemo at his home in the 3200 block of South 17th Street. Less than 30 minutes after the shooting, police were knocking on Nicodemo's door. He said he had been working inside his house. He was taken into custody. After obtaining a search warrant for the Honda Pilot, which was parked behind Nicodemo's home, police found a .357 magnum wrapped in a jacket behind the driver's seat.

Evidence entered during the trial indicated that the gun was the murder weapon. It was, Assistant District Attorney Brian Zarallo said in his opening statement, the "smoking gun" that tied Nicodemo to the murder. Zarallo said the prosecution did not have to offer a motive for the shooting. He did not provide one. But he twice mentioned Domenic Grande, a mob associate and close friend of Nicodemo's, as the possible shooter. Grande has never been charged.

DiPietro, 50, was a convicted drug dealer who, according to some underworld and law enforcement sources, was cooperating with authorities at the time he was killed. His murder was described by one investigator as the "dumbest" mob hit in the history of Philadelphia.

No one, the investigator said, uses their own vehicle as the getaway car. And any experienced hitman knows that the first order of business after a shooting is to dispose of the murder weapon. The shooting occurred as mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six co-defendants were being tried in a racketeering case in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. A shooting during a mob trial is also considered bad underworld form.

Those factors apparently came into play as McMonagle prepared his opening statement. In it, he told the jury that Nicodemo happened to be in the neighborhood on the day of the shooting because he had an office nearby and because his parents lived there. The defense lawyer said a masked gunman jumped into the car, forced Nicodemo to speed away and then, at some point, jumped out of the Honda Pilot, but not before stashing the gun behind the driver's seat.

The explanation begs several questions that may or may not have been answered had the trial been completed. One was whether Nicodemo would take the stand in his own defense to expand on the "carjacking" story. At that point, he would have been faced with another difficult question. Why didn't he report the carjacking to police or mention it when they came to his door that afternoon?

Instead, Nicodemo has sat in jail, denied bail, since his arrest on first degree murder and related charges that could land him in jail for 30 years to life.

The juror, a Philadelphia resident who works as a media consultant, said she was not aware of all the background at the time she sat on the panel, but has since learned more about the case. At the time, she said, testimony that Nicodemo told authorities he was working on his house "made no sense with the facts presented."

"Now that I know about the big mob trial that was going on during the DiPietro murder, it seems suspicious," she wrote. "The fact that the prosecution wasn't able to substantiate a motive in intriguing."

The juror said she was also troubled by media reports that she had been dismissed because she had read something about the trial in the newspapers. That was not true, she said. She said she was told she was dismissed because a member of either the victim's or the defendant's family had recognized her.

Law enforcement sources said it was a member of Nicodemo's family who belatedly claimed to have recognized the juror. The sources said they were skeptical of the claim and thought the family had targeted the woman because she appeared to be paying close attention to the prosecution's case and appeared sympathetic to DA's position. In fact, the juror said she knew no one from either family and was puzzled about why she had been let go.

Her dismissal, after the lunch break during the second day of testimony, left the panel with one alternate. On May 19, a second juror was let go. And on May 20, amid reports of suspected jury tampering, a third juror -- a man who lived on Second Street in South Philadelphia -- was released. That reduced the panel to just 11 members and led the judge to declare a mistrial.

Whether the defense comes up with another explanation when the new trial begins is open to speculation. With the facts in evidence fairly straightforward, Nicodemo is hard pressed to offer any story that would reasonably explain how his Honda Pilot was the getaway car and how the murder weapon was found inside of it.

The juror, a film buff, said watching a trial is like watching a movie.

"A film and a trial attorney's arguments are distorted depictions of `the truth,' and of course bias,'" she wrote.

Her approach while watching a movie, she wrote, was to "think beyond the frame...Is the person telling the story withholding relevant background information so that the viewer is unable to see an event or character's behavior within its larger context. This is why it's always necessary to ask, `What aren't they telling me? Why aren't they telling me?'"

She said she employs "the principle of Occam's razor" in looking for the truth: "(in most cases) the least elaborately constructed narrative is probably the closest to `the truth.'"

In the Nicodemo trial, she said, her conclusions were: "There was no carjacking. Mister Nicodemo wasn't working on his house. He did a bad thing. He panicked and he got caught. It happens every day."

While she said she weighed and assessed the information provided during the trial, she quickly surmised that Nicodemo "was a mobster" who was involved in the crime. She wrote that she considered different scenarios that were placed before the jury by the defense. These included McMonagle's arguments that it made no sense for Nicodemo to use his own car, go to a familiar neighborhood and carry out a hit. The defense also pointed out that Nicodemo had driven his two young children to school that morning and had gone shopping and purchased $150 worth of frozen shrimp for a planned Christmas Eve Seven Fishes dinner that day. These were not the kind of activities that usually come before a gangland shooting.

The juror said she thought about those seeming incongruities, but she wrote "I ultimately decided that AN [Anthony Nicodemo] was simply a run of the mill sociopath; he could effortlessly move between that banality of his everyday life and his job as an amoral thug."

In one final note, the juror said she was struck by the date of the murder, December 12, 2012.

"The date 12/12/12 seems like a corny date for a planned execution," wrote the jurist. She wondered if the date was "a coincidence," adding that "the 12 card in the Italian Tarot is the Hanged Man."



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