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Convicted murderer freed from death row

Published Mar. 15, 1990
Updated Oct. 16, 2005

A former Army officer who spent one and a half years on death row in the mutilation slaying of a young woman was released from a Florida prison Wednesday to the disgust of the victim's family and angry jurors. Circuit Judge Richard Conrad formally signed an order of acquittal as a result of an unusual state Supreme Court ruling reversing Robert Cox's 1988 conviction. The high court held in December that Cox was convicted on insufficient evidence in the slaying of 19-year-old Sharon Zellers, a Walt Disney World employee, in 1978.

However, Cox is not a free man. The 30-year-old former Army lieutenant was turned over to prison authorities from California, where he must finish serving time on a previous kidnapping charge.

Court officials say he may serve another year or so before his release from a nine-year sentence.

The brief Orlando hearing was attended by emotional relatives and several members of the jury that convicted Cox on circumstantial evidence.

"He may walk free from the prison cell ... but Mr. Cox will never be a free man the rest of his life," said a tearful Charles Zellers, 65, father of the murder victim. "Anybody with any degree of religious background whatsoever will understand what I'm saying."

Miss Zellers disappeared on Dec. 30, 1978, as she was heading home from work. Her body was found six days later, stuffed into a manhole at a sewage-pumping station.

Cox, then 19 and having just completed Army Ranger training in Georgia, was visiting in the Orlando area with his parents and was staying at a motel near where the body was found.

Cox became a suspect because on the night Miss Zellers disappeared, he had returned to his motel room bleeding profusely from the mouth. He told police he had accidentally bitten off part of his tongue after he was attacked by a mugger.

But Cox was not arrested until eight years later, while he was serving the California prison sentence on kidnapping and assault charges involving two women. He was brought back to Florida and stood trial in Miss Zellers' murder.

During a four-day trial, jurors considered evidence that included blood, hairs, a boot print and his alibi. He was convicted and Judge Conrad sentenced him to death.

However, the Supreme Court, in an automatic review of the case, unanimously ordered an acquittal. During the trial, experts testified that the hair and blood could have come from Cox but the testimony was not conclusive, the justices said. Cox's boots were never compared with the print found in Ms. Zellers' car. The missing piece of tongue was never found, and no witnesses had seen the two together.

After the court ruling, juror Nancy D'Aurora wrote the justices an angry letter, saying that their "frivolous finding is all wrong, and I am outraged at your handling of this case." She said Cox would kill again "because you have provided him the opportunity."

Other jurors vowed never to serve as jury members again.

Prosecutor Jeff Ashton attempted unsuccessfully to get a reversal, and when the Supreme Court refused he insisted on his technical right to have the inmate returned to the trial court for the formal release.

"Despite what the Supreme Court may say, a jury of 12 citizens sat for days and heard the evidence in this case and unanimously voted that Cox was guilty," Ashton said before Wednesday's hearing.

"The public has a right to know that. ... Why should he be allowed to slip as quietly as possible out of state?"

"There's no justice in this," Miss Zellers' father said.

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