Anthony Nicodemo smiled and waved to family members and friends as he left the 11th floor courtroom this afternoon following a second day of testimony in his murder trial.
The burly, 42-year-old mobster, who is facing a potential life sentence, appeared calm and relaxed as he headed back to the prison cell he has occupied since his arrest minutes after Gino DiPietro was gunned down on a South Philadelphia street more than two years ago.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Zarallo could wrap up his case tomorrow. Court does not meet on Friday. That would set the stage for what might be the biggest decision in Nicodemo's life. Does he take the stand in his own defense?
A gag ordered imposed by Judge Jeffrey Minehart bars Zarallo and defense attorney Brian McMonagle from commenting about the proceedings. Several sources, however, say that McMonagle has not decided if he will put his client on the stand when the defense portion of the trial begins sometime next week.
The case against Nicodemo is entirely circumstantial but the evidence linking him to the crime is difficult to ignore or explain away. The key elements are these:
- Nicodemo's black Honda Pilot was spotted speeding away from the shooting scene seconds after a masked gunman jumped into the vehicle which was parked in an alleyway less than a block from where DiPietro was gunned down on the afternoon of Dec. 12, 2012.
- A .357 magnum, which has been identified as the murder weapon, was found in the Honda Pilot.
The District Attorney's Office has conceded that Nicodemo was not the shooter. Zarallo has implied that Dominic Grande, a close associate of Nicodemo's, is the suspected hitman. Grande, the son and nephew of Philadelphia mobsters jailed in the 1980s, has not been charged.
After a defense motion aimed at barring the introduction of the murder weapon as evidence failed, McMonagle offered an opening statement clearly designed to explain away the two key elements that tie his client to the crime.
He conceded that it was Nicodemo's Honda Pilot in which the gunman fled the murder scene. But he told the jury that his client was unaware of what had happened and was accosted by the unknown gunman who forced him to drive away. The gunman later jumped out of the car, but left the murder weapon behind.
While the story may sound incredulous, it offers an explanation that fits the evidence. But will Nicodemo get on the stand and tell the jury an expanded version? Will he offer an explanation of what happened in his Honda Pilot that afternoon?
What did the gunman look like and what did he say? Did he point the weapon at Nicodemo? Did he tell him where to drive? Where and when did he jump out of the vehicle? And which way did he head after he was back out on the street?
How will he respond to what are sure to be questions from Zarallo about why he never said anything about a carjacking when police came to his home minutes after the shooting and placed him in custody?
What will he say when Zarallo asks him why he didn't report the carjacking to police?
Testimony today, largely from police, focused on the circumstances surrounding Nicodemo's arrest and on evidence gathered at his home, from his car and at scene of the shooting.
A witness at the murder scene got the license tag of the Honda Pilot as it sped away. Nicodemo's home was less than a five-minute ride from where DiPietro was killed. Police were knocking on his door less than 30 minutes after the shooting. They found the Honda Pilot, its engine still warm, parked behind the house. Later, after obtaining a search, they found the gun behind the driver's seat.
Police who went to Nicodemo's house testified that the front door was ajar but that at first he didn't respond to knocks on the door. Sgt. Andrew Callaghan said he hollered into the house, "Police. Anthony why don't you come out and make it easier on yourself?"
Seconds later, Callaghan said, Nicodemo appeared at the door and surrendered to police. He was handcuffed and placed in a squad car. The only thing he said, according to Callaghan, was that he had been working in his house and was waiting for his wife and children to get home.
Callaghan, a twenty-five year police veteran, said Nicodemo was "sweating profusely" and that when he patted him down he felt his heart pounding "like someone who had just run a marathon." He said when he and other officers later searched the home, with Nicodemo's permission, he expected to find exercise equipment, assuming Nicodemo had been working out.
But there was none.
Under cross-examination from McMonagle, Callaghan acknowledged that when Nicodemo first came out of the house, police had drawn their guns and were pointing them out him.
"People with guns pointed at them tend to sweat, don't they?" McMonagle asked.
Callaghan said that was true, but repeated that Nicodemo seemed to be sweating in the extreme. None of the police officers or detectives questioned today were asked about a carjacking and there has been no indication that Nicodemo mentioned it to anyone when he was taken into custody.
How he explains that, if he takes the stand, could go a long way toward determining his future. Another concern in the defense camp, according to sources, is whether Nicodemo would be able to keep his temper in check under cross-examination.
"He's got a short fuse," said one source who knows him.
Should he opt to testify, Nicodemo could also open himself up to questions about past criminal problems. He has a prior gambling conviction tied to an alleged organized crime betting ring operating out of the high stakes poker room at the Borgota casino-hotel in Atlantic City. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in that case. A New Jersey State Police affidavit that was part of that investigation identified him as a suspect in the 2003 murder of mobster John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto.
The Casasanto murder is one of three gangland homicides still under investigation by federal authorities. While organized crime has not been mentioned by any of the witnesses in the trial, Mark Pinero, a Philadelphia Police detective long assigned to the FBI's Organized Crime squad, has been in court each day monitoring the testimony. And today two members of the Police Department's Organized Crime Unit were also in and out of the courtroom.
Federal authorities have privately indicated that they hoped the leverage of the DiPietro murder charge might be enough to convince Nicodemo that his only recourse was to cooperate. Thus far, that hasn't happened. But the stakes continue to increase as the trial moves closer to jury deliberation.
"He's got a beautiful wife and two young kids," said one source. "He may never get to be with them again. That's what his risking. And for what?"
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.
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