Advertisement

Death row inmate Tommy Zeigler gets all-clear for DNA testing

The attorney general’s office may appeal, but the evidence will already be sent out for testing. Zeigler hopes for exoneration in a 1975 quadruple murder.
Inmate William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler was convicted of the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man in his furniture store on Christmas Eve in 1975 in Winter Garden. Now he hopes DNA testing will reveal his innocence.
Inmate William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler was convicted of the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man in his furniture store on Christmas Eve in 1975 in Winter Garden. Now he hopes DNA testing will reveal his innocence. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Dec. 19, 2022|Updated Dec. 22, 2022

Update, Dec. 22: Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office has asked the Florida Supreme Court to stop Tommy Zeigler’s evidence from leaving Orlando for DNA testing in California.

”Release of the forensic evidence in this case … harms the State, the public, and the victims of Zeigler’s crimes, all of whom are entitled to finality,” lawyers for the Attorney General wrote in a Dec. 20 emergency request.

But, as Zeigler’s lawyers said in a 21-page response, the Attorney General was slow to act and is now “time-barred” from appealing, since Judge Patricia L. Stowbridge made her ruling allowing the release of evidence more than 30 days ago on Oct. 27.

Her decision two days ago, Zeigler’s lawyers observed, merely set that order in writing and outlined how the evidence would be handled. Besides, Zeigler’s lawyers said, the evidence has already been shipped.

“The AG cannot now seek to prevent the release of evidence because the evidence has already been released,” Zeigler’s lawyers wrote.

The Florida Supreme Court has not yet responded to the emergency request.

Update, Dec. 21: Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office has appealed the decision to release evidence for DNA testing to the Florida Supreme Court. However, the evidence has already been sent to a lab, according to a spokesperson for the Orange County Clerk of Court.

ORLANDO — Death row inmate Tommy Zeigler has won his crusade for testing.

Days before the 47th anniversary of the Christmas Eve quadruple murder that sent him to prison, an Orlando circuit judge signed an order allowing his team to test all of the evidence in his case for DNA.

It’s the result he’s been seeking for almost two decades, despite vehement opposition from top Florida prosecutors. Zeigler hopes it’s a chance to clear his name.

The evidence includes never-before-tested fingernail clippings, guns and clothes of all of the victims — who were Zeigler’s wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s furniture store outside Orlando.

The Tampa Bay Times explored his case in a 2018 series and podcast called Blood and Truth.

Related: Read the project: Blood and Truth | Could DNA prove him innocent? Florida doesn't want to know

“This is a victory for Tommy,” said David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, who recently went to visit Zeigler on death row.

The 77-year-old has struggled with heart and breathing problems in recent years, especially since he contracted the coronavirus in 2020. He’s known for exercising with miles of running and pushups in his small cell.

“He’s trying everything he can to look after himself,” Michaeli said. “But you can only do so much with pushups.”

Letters from Tommy Zeigler to Lynn-Marie Carty line the shelves of her living room. Carty has supported Zeigler as a private investigator for more than a decade.
Letters from Tommy Zeigler to Lynn-Marie Carty line the shelves of her living room. Carty has supported Zeigler as a private investigator for more than a decade.
Looking for real-time news alerts?

Looking for real-time news alerts?

Subscribe to our free Breaking News newsletter

You’ll receive updates on major issues and events in Tampa Bay and beyond as they happen.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Zeigler’s New York attorneys are paying for the testing, which will be performed by Forensic Analytical Crime Laboratory based in Hayward, California. Zeigler’s attorneys say the evidence, collected from the Zeigler furniture store in Winter Garden, could be sent to the lab within the next 30 days.

Dozens and dozens of pieces of evidence from the December 1975 crime will be released and tested for the first time.

According to its website, the California lab has undertaken 150 post-conviction investigations, leading to the exoneration of 50 people who were wrongly convicted, including several sentenced to death.

It is also testing evidence in the case of Henry Sireci, convicted in the 1975 murder of an Orlando used car lot owner. Sireci won the right to test his evidence this summer.

A 38-caliber bullet casing in front of the Zeigler furniture store in Winter Garden. Zeigler was convicted of the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man in his furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975.
A 38-caliber bullet casing in front of the Zeigler furniture store in Winter Garden. Zeigler was convicted of the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man in his furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975.

Zeigler has asked half a dozen times during the last 19 years to analyze the evidence. But he always met with rejection until the election of Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Monique H. Worrell, who had started the office’s conviction integrity unit. Worrell, one of just a couple progressive state attorneys in Florida, signed agreements with Zeigler and Sireci to conduct the DNA testing months after she took office in 2020.

Zeigler’s lawyers had initially sought early DNA testing in 1994. The testing was granted in 2001, and the results appeared to support his claim of innocence. Forensic tests on four small squares of Zeigler’s plaid trousers and corduroy shirt failed to detect his murdered family members’ blood.

When Zeigler’s lawyers asked, beginning in 2003, to further analyze Zeigler’s outfit and later to use touch DNA tests, Florida prosecutors and judges refused. They said the testing would not automatically exonerate Zeigler, as Florida’s 2001 DNA testing law mandated. They pointed to witnesses, including Zeigler’s handyman, who told jurors that Zeigler tried to shoot him.

But Zeigler’s New York lawyers, Dennis Tracey and Michaeli, observed that if he had murdered four people, their blood should be on his clothes. His father-in-law’s fingernail clippings have never been tested, even though the minister from Georgia fought with someone in the dark store.

On Monday, Circuit Judge Patricia L. Stowbridge also refused a request by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to hold off on her decision for a month while Moody’s attorneys decide whether to appeal. Stowbridge even asked if she had the authority to strike a notice of appeal, which she decided not to do. Moody’s office could appeal the decision to allow testing, but the evidence will be released for testing no matter what.

A spokesperson for Moody said Monday that her office was reviewing the order.

“Tommy is guardedly optimistic,” said Michaeli outside the courtroom Monday. “Tommy knows from 47 years of living incarcerated in a 6-by-9 cell that anything can go wrong. He’s learned to temper his excitement.”