Legislature fails to support DNA testing that would have helped inmates like Tommy Zeigler

Bill’s sponsor says he’ll continue working toward a change in state law.
Tommy Zeigler, photographed on death row, has spent years hoping that Florida will allow for DNA testing of the evidence in his case. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
Tommy Zeigler, photographed on death row, has spent years hoping that Florida will allow for DNA testing of the evidence in his case. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published March 18, 2020

A bill in the Florida Legislature that would have eased the requirements for inmates seeking DNA testing failed this past week, shutting out Tommy Zeigler and inmates like him from testing their evidence with modern forensic methods.

Zeigler has been on death row for 44 years for the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s furniture store in Winter Garden on Christmas Eve 1975. He was shot in the stomach that day and has always maintained he and his family were victims of a robbery attempt.

The bill, sponsored by Tampa Rep. Jamie Grant, the Republican chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, would have likely allowed Zeigler to test the corduroy shirt and plaid pants he wore on the day of the crime for the victims’ blood. It would have enabled him, for the first time, to test their fingernail clippings.

Grant, who researched how other states handle DNA testing, ushered the bill through his subcommittee, the Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee -- unanimously. Even the full House approved it, 114 to 0, last week.

But the bill died when the Senate failed to pick it up. Later, it was added to another criminal justice reform bill, which also failed as the House and Senate haggled over the details.

“I’ll keep working on it until it’s done,” Grant said Monday. “I think this is an example that sometimes the process can be really ugly.”

Grant’s bill would have changed Florida statute, which now says inmates must be exonerated by forensic testing, such as a DNA test that might identify the true rapist. The bill would have allowed for forensic testing even if it would just provide evidence in a case or point to an accomplice.

David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, said he was encouraged by the fact that House Bill 7077 passed one chamber of Florida’s Legislature unanimously.

“How many bills accomplish that?” he said. “It tells us something about the common sense wisdom of testing and the fact that it is a nonpartisan issue.”

He said they would not give up fighting for the testing.

Inmates who have been in prison the longest struggle the most for permission to conduct DNA testing, even those who offer to pay for it. Zeigler’s requests have been rejected six times.

“I think the Florida experience is similar to the experience in other states,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C. “What we’re seeing in state after state is that the standard for obtaining (DNA testing) is so high, and the rules are so stringent, that folks are being executed without the testing being done.”

In Georgia, he said, a man was executed last November for shooting a convenience store clerk in 1994 -- without obtaining forensic analysis. In January, the City Council in Jacksonville, Ark. agreed to turn over evidence in a 1993 murder to the family of a man executed in 2017. Courts also had turned down his request for DNA testing.

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The Tampa Bay Times reviewed the cases of 46 men on Florida’s death row who asked for permission to conduct DNA testing and found that judges turned down 38 of them at least once. Nineteen were denied all DNA testing, including eight who were later executed.

That analysis was featured in a multipart series and podcast called Blood and Truth.

“We’re running out of time with Tommy, there’s no doubt about it,” said Terry Hadley, one of his original attorneys.

Zeigler’s lawyers say the forensic tests could prove the 74-year-old innocent and point to another perpetrator. They say that even the state’s DNA expert said the killer’s clothes should have blood evidence from the victims, particularly those slain in a gruesome fashion or at close range. “If Zeigler has none of the victims’ blood on his clothes,” the lawyers argued in a memo to the state, “then he did not kill them.”

But last year, State Attorney Aramis Ayala turned down Zeigler’s latest bid even though her conviction integrity unit recommended the testing. She opposed it, she said, because the DNA testing would not outright exonerate Zeigler.

Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at Follow @WriterLeonora.