Dalia Dippolito’s retrial starts today; big changes expected

“I know what you’re thinking,” Dalia Dippolito told an undercover police officer seven years ago. “’What a cute little girl.’ But I’m not. I’m a lot tougher than I look.”

These were the words prosecutors repeated in 2011, at the start of Dippolito’s first trial for a caught-on-camera plot to kill her then-husband, Michael Dippolito. They say it exposed the heart of a woman a judge called “pure evil” as he sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

A new trial begins with jury selection today, more than two years after an appellate court threw out the Dippolito’s first conviction and sentence. Jury selection will start with a pool of 200 prospective jurors, and the trial is expected to last about six days after the jury is selected.

That means by this time next week, Dippolito, 34, may be explaining those words of hers to a jury for the first time, in the retrial of claims she tried to hire a hitman to kill her new husband after plans to take all his money and get him sent back to prison failed.

Dippolito taking the witness stand in her own defense is the first of three big differences expected between this trial and her first. This time, she could be the star witness as well as the defendant, as she is expected to tell a jury that her words – including a claim that she was “5,000 percent sure” she wanted her husband dead – were all part of an acting script.

Dippolito says her husband and her former lover worked together to feed her those lines, and forced her to play the role of a murderous vixen, in hopes that the murder-for-hire plot would land them all acting jobs.

And the viral video that featured the images of Dippolito crying at what turned out to be a staged crime scene — the video that was the centerpiece of the prosecutors’ first case? Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams on Wednesday told Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley he would agree to keep it out of the trial altogether this time.

Williams and fellow prosecutor Laura Laurie will, however, call Dippolito’s former lover, Mohamed Shihadeh, as a witness — the third big difference between this trial and the last. He was the former lover who sparked the Boynton Beach police undercover investigation when he told them Dippolito was looking to have her husband killed.

In Dippolito’s 2011 trial, prosecutors played a pretrial interview of Shihadeh instead of having him testify live because they thought he was in the Middle East at the time, although his arrest on DUI charges in Boca Raton during the trial proved that wasn’t true.

Now he is expected to be the most important witness besides Michael and Dalia Dippolito, whose tumultuous marriage that began as an illicit affair plays out for jurors over six days of testimony.

Critics of Dippolito’s defense say that it is just a repackaged version of the defense at her first trial, where her attorney at the time said she and her husband contrived the plot in hope of landing their own reality television show.

And if convicted again, Dippolito will face the same maximum sentence she received before: 20 years in prison.

Under the direction of her new legal team, California attorney and TV news pundit Brian Claypool and local defense attorney Greg Rosenfeld, Dippolito herself says the only reason she never spoke of the acting script before now is because her old lawyers advised against it.

The greatest villains of the 2009 plot, according to Dippolito’s new team, are members of the Boynton Beach Police Department, so fame-hungry themselves that they pushed the undercover investigation beyond ethical and legal bounds with the bells and whistles of a staged murder scene and subsequent gotcha confrontation by Dippolito’s very much alive husband.

Dippolito previewed her “acting script” defense in an interview with ABC’s 20/20 last year, and again in a pretrial hearing earlier this year.

»RELATED: Dalia Dippolito on ABC: Alleged murder plot was a TV audition

Commenters on social media after the 20/20 interview largely rejected Dippolito’s defense, and disagreements over whether she should have done the interview in the first place could have marked the beginnings of a split within her current legal team.

Miami attorney Mark Eiglarsh told Kelley candidly this spring that he was against Dippolito doing the interview. Last month he withdrew from Dippolito’s defense team, which sparked an ultimately failed attempt from Rosenfeld and Claypool to get Dippolito’s retrial delayed.

Rosenfeld in a pretrial hearing Wednesday asked Kelley to keep jurors from seeing an interrogation video after Dippolito’s arrest, noting that a detective can be seen sneaking Dippolito a release from the television show COPS and getting her to sign it by misrepresenting what it was.

“This was theater,” Rosenfeld told Kelley. “When you have a cop going in and out with a waiver form for a TV show, how can the jurors not be prejudiced against that? It makes a spectacle out of this whole thing.”

Kelley hasn’t decided yet whether jurors will get to see Dippolito’s interrogation video, but prosecutors on Wednesday agreed to keep out of the case all references to Dippolito having been an escort when she met Michael Dippolito, along with claims that she once tried to poison him.

Instead, prosecutors appear ready to build their case on recorded conversations between Dippolito and Shihadeh, and Dippolito and Widy Jean, the undercover officer Shihadeh introduced to her claiming he was a hitman.

But what brought Dippolito’s case national attention was the sight of her, dressed casually in a tank top, yoga pants and a ball cap from her workout, falling into the arms of a detective a little too soon at a staged crime scene, before he could finish telling her that her husband had been killed.

It was all a lie, of course, and everyone in the receiving line of officers who comforted her on camera after that knew it. In the days before that video was shot, police recorded Dippolito meeting with Jean to arrange to kill Michael Dippolito for $10,000.

Former prosecutor Elizabeth Parker won a conviction on murder solicitation charges against Dippolito in 2011 using those videos, though the conviction was later overturned on appeal after a higher court ruled that Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath should have questioned prospective jurors individually about news reports they’d seen or read about the case instead of questioning them as a group.

Before the appellate court ruling, Parker, now in private practice, published a book about the case.

»RELATED: Dippolito murder-for-hire tale goes from front page to bookshelf

In Poison Candy, The Murderous Madam: Inside Dalia Dippolito’s Plot to Kill, Parker delved into Dippolito’s past as an escort, described how she was a call girl when she first met a still-married Michael Dippolito and made public for the first time claims that Dippolito had told her new husband she was pregnant with their first child even as she plotted to kill him.

“This broad just smashed me,” Michael told detectives after Dalia’s arrest, “besides trying to kill me.”

According to detectives and prosecutors, Dippolito approached her sometime lover, Shihadeh, looking for someone to have her husband killed. A one-time convenience store owner who himself got a taste of the limelight with a guest appearance on the USA Network show “Burn Notice,” Shihahed said Dippolito was so desperate to find a hitman that during one meeting with him, she approached convicted “Buck Wild” gang leader Larry Coe in Riviera Beach and offered him the job.

Shihadeh, worried that Dippolito would get herself into trouble, went to police and said he asked them to help the woman he believed only wanted to kill her husband because he was abusing her.

On Wednesday, Kelley agreed to consider requests from Dippolito’s lawyers to keep jurors from hearing about the pregnancy claims and phone calls Dippolito made to police claiming her husband had drugs on him in an attempt to get his probation revoked.

Before testimony begins, Kelley is also expected to rule on whether jurors will see or hear other evidence related to allegations that Dippolito tried to get Michael Dippolito’s probation revoked so he would be returned to prison.

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