Florida Court Approves DNA Testing for 46-Year-Old Death Penalty Case
November 6, 2022 Don Pumphrey, Jr. Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Violent Crimes Social Share
A Florida judge has just announced she will likely allow an order for DNA testing of evidence in what is being called “an epic turnaround” in the 1975 murder trial for Tommy Zeigler.
Despite continuous motions denied over the years by Florida’s Attorney Generals, Zeigler could be working toward the next step for an exoneration after spending four decades on Death Row. We will provide the latest details in his case, along with responses.
What was the Case?
Tommy Zeigler, now 75, has spent the last four decades on death row after being convicted of the murder of his wife and in-laws on December 24th, 1975. Authorities claimed that Tommy shot his wife, Eunice Zeigler, his in-laws Virginia Edwards and Perry Edwards, and customer Charles Mays. All four of the murders took place in their family-owned furniture store.
Police believed Tommy shot his wife and mother-in-law first, then his father-in-law and Mays. Perry Edwards and Charles Mays both had their skulls smashed with a metal crank. Zeigler has always maintained his innocence, saying he was shot in the stomach himself. The defendant claimed that Mays was part of a group that tried to rob the store and had killed the others.
However, Edward Williams had a different story for the police. The Zeigler family’s handyman told authorities that he had almost been killed by Tommy that same day at the furniture store, but the gun never went off.
In 2001, Zeigler was granted post-conviction DNA testing for the murder’s evidence. The DNA testing revealed that Perry Edward’s blood was on Mays’ pants and shoes. It also excluded Perry Edward’s blood from the bloodstains on Tommy’s shirt. However, the new DNA evidence was not enough to exonerate him, according to the Florida Supreme Court.
Zeigler’s attorney requested permission to access and test more evidence at their own costs in 2003 but was denied. State Attorney Monique Worrell reviewed Zeigler’s case in part of the new Conviction Integrity Unit created by then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
Worrell urged Ayala to allow the DNA testing, writing, “Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing? Absolutely not.” Ayala explained that the new DNA evidence would not be enough to exonerate Zeigler, therefore denying the request.
Since then, Ayala and now-State Attorney Ashley Moody have both interpreted a 2001 DNA testing law in Florida. According to the law, DNA testing is permitted only in a case in which it would very clearly exonerate the defendant.
Florida Statute section 925.11 titled “Postsentencing DNA Testing” explains that a person who has been tried and found guilty of committing a crime and has been sentenced may petition the court to order an examination of physical evidence collected at the time of the investigation of the crime for which he or she has been sentenced which may contain DNA and which would exonerate that person.
In his newest appeal, Zeigler wrote:
“My Father-in-law was brutally beaten by either his murderer or the murderer’s accomplice. Further testing on my shirts will demonstrably show that there is no blood of [my father-in-law] on my clothing—as there would be had I actually beaten and killed [him].”
Upcoming Decision for DNA Testing
On October 27th, 2022, Circuit Court Judge Patricia Strowbridge stated she would likely sign the order to direct the DNA testing from the 1975 Christmas Eve murder. Judge Strowbridge has directed the attorneys to rewrite the proposed order so it includes procedural safeguards for the evidence, which includes information on the transportation and storage of the evidence.
Included in the evidence that would be tested are the fingernail clippings from the victims, guns, and clothes worn by both the victims and by Ziegler. The decision from Judge Strowbridge was influenced by the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in the Henry Sireci case, which was considered a “relatively cryptic, short ruling.” The court decided to uphold Judge Wayne Wooten’s decision to initiate private evidence testing after Attorney General Ashley Moody’s motion to block the testing was denied.
Sireci had been sentenced to death for allegedly stabbing the owner of an Orlando car lot in a motel room. The sentencing was in part due to the junk science testimony that claimed a hair on the victim’s sock was “microscopically identical” to Sireci’s hair. The defendant pushed for new DNA testing, stating that it would prove his innocence.
DNA testing has helped to exonerate multiple defendants who were on death row—including Robert DuBoise, who was wrongfully convicted of a 1983 murder based on a bite mark and false testimony. DuBoise was exonerated in August 2020.
Now over 30 years after getting convicted of murder, Tommy Ziegler has been granted an evidentiary hearing. The hearing is set to take place in February 2023.
In her agreement to new DNA testing in Sireci’s case, State Attorney Monique Worrell said, “when you have someone who is charged with murder, particularly someone who has been sentenced to death, I don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring advancements in science that may be able to prove their innocence…I certainly don’t want someone innocent to be executed under my watch.”
In the petition he wrote last year asking for new DNA testing, 66-year-old Zeigler stated, “if the test results confirm the State’s theory, it will allay doubts that a man has been wrongly imprisoned for so long. If the results confirm my innocence, as I contend they will, the evidence can be used to finally set me free.”
Zeigler’s attorney responded to Attorney General Moody’s fight against the new DNA testing. Defense attorney Terry Hadley stated the following:
“It is beyond my ability to comprehend why the attorney general would try to stop testing that could potentially prove Zeigler innocent when the same has been agreed on by the state attorney’s office. We’re not asking for a free ticket, just the chance to test at our expense the evidence to establish guilt or innocence once and for all.”
Nina Morrison, representing Sireci from the Senior Litigation Counsel for the Innocence Project, told the Tampa Bay Times that the team was “quite pleased that the state attorney has now recognized that it’s in the interests of justice to do all possible DNA testing before a man who has been maintaining innocence for four-and-a-half decades is executed.”
Florida has had more death row exonerations than any other state in the U.S. since 1972 with 30 exonerations. “We therefore have an obligation to ensure that we don’t add to that number in a way that can’t be reversed,” Worrel said.
What is an Evidentiary Hearing?
An evidentiary hearing can occur at any point in which the court considers evidence in order to make a legal decision. If a defendant believes there has been a sentencing error, they may be eligible for filing a motion to correct the sentencing error.
According to the Florida Supreme Court, unless the motion can be resolved without a hearing, there should be a hearing date set no later than 20 days from the filing of the motion with a notice to all parties. If it is determined that an evidentiary hearing is needed, it shall be set no later than 20 days from the date of the calendar call.
The court will have to grant a prompt hearing if the evidentiary hearing is required. The state attorney and the defendant’s counsel must determine the issues and make findings of facts and conclusions of law. The defendant will have the burden of presenting evidence in support of their motion.
Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida
Even after a trial has ended, there are still options for defendants to file motions and work towards getting exonerated just like in the case above. In order to have the best defense for your case, we advise working with a skilled defense attorney in your area.
Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have worked with clients across the state for various criminal charges. Contact us today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave us an online message on our website.
Written by Karissa Key