For 19 years, death row inmate Tommy Zeigler has begged for a full DNA test of the evidence in his case.
On Thursday, a Florida judge said she was going to let him.
Circuit Judge Patricia L. Strowbridge stopped short of signing the agreement for testing, asking lawyers to rewrite it with safeguards to protect the evidence.
But for an elderly man with health problems on death row for 46 years, Thursday’s decision in an Orlando courtroom represented an epic turnabout. Zeigler believes the testing of guns, victim fingernail clippings and clothes he and the victims wore will prove him innocent in a 1975 quadruple murder.
“We’ve been fighting for this for so long, this incredibly commonsense, basic thing,” said David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, after the hearing. “That’s almost the part that’s the hardest and most tragic to fathom. All we’re talking about is a pile of stuff that’s sitting right there in the courthouse. All we’re talking about is releasing it for testing.”
Prosecutors and judges had refused at least five times to let the 77-year-old test at his lawyers’ expense.
This week’s win for Zeigler came despite efforts by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to block him and another death row inmate, Henry Sireci, from testing crime scene evidence. The Florida Supreme Court and two Orlando judges have now rebuffed Moody’s efforts.
Zeigler’s supporters celebrated cautiously, aware it’s not a done deal, but optimistic.
“This is a big victory for us,” said Terry Hadley, who represented Zeigler at his original 1976 trial.
“I’m shocked and happy they are going to do the right thing,” said Lynn Marie Carty, Zeigler’s private investigator. “It sounds like it’s really, really going to happen.”
The momentum in both cases pivoted with the arrival of a reform-minded state attorney. The prisoners reached separate agreements with newly elected State Attorney Monique H. Worrell in 2021 to move forward with the DNA analysis, which their lawyers said would exonerate them.
Zeigler — whose case the Tampa Bay Times explored in a 2018 series and podcast called “Blood and Truth” — was convicted 46 years ago of murdering his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s Winter Garden furniture store.
Almost two dozen inmates sent to death row in the 1970s and 1980s have been denied DNA testing, despite a law passed in 2001 to help facilitate such testing, according to a 2018 review by the Tampa Bay Times. Nine others, including Zeigler, were prevented from performing more tests or advanced analysis.
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Zeigler’s battle converged with that of Sireci, convicted in the 1975 murder of an Orlando used-car lot owner, after Sireci won the right to test his evidence last July.
The Florida Supreme court affirmed a decision that Sireci should be able to send out his evidence for DNA testing, despite efforts by Moody’s office to thwart it.
Strowbridge said Thursday that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Sireci’s case influenced her. She gave Zeigler’s lawyers until December to redo the DNA agreement, which she said did not provide enough detail on the testing.
She requested specifics on how evidence would be transported, who would be present and where it would be stored, among other things.
Moody’s office opposed the testing because it would violate Florida’s DNA testing law, which requires the results to automatically exonerate someone — not raise more questions about guilt or innocence.
A spokesperson for Moody said her office will decide how to proceed once the order is signed.
“Generally speaking, in light of what we are seeing around this country and dangerous prosecutors ignoring the law, we will continue to stand up for victims and justice, and ensure prosecutors and defense counsel do not make side agreements in contradiction with existing rules and statutes,” Kylie Mason, deputy communications director for Moody’s office, wrote in an email.
The office’s intervention has already delayed the analysis 16 months, with the help of Florida’s chockablock judicial system.
But Zeigler, who has lived in a single cell facing death longer than any other living inmate in Florida, is used to these delays. His long quest to test stalled as local prosecutors refused, and appeals to higher courts went nowhere. He contracted the coronavirus in 2020, which led to breathing and heart problems.
Still, he said in an email last month, it was hard not to be hopeful.
Concrete walls separate him from the other inmates, but they still yell to each other about the roasting heat, the merciful rain showers, their aches and pains and worries. And now they were all telling him his two-decade pursuit of DNA testing was over. His time had come.
Zeigler’s quest for testing
The shifting fortunes of Zeigler and Sireci follow the election of Worrell, one of Florida’s new, progressive state attorneys. Another is Hillsborough County’s Andrew Warren, who was suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis in August.
Worrell worked as an assistant public defender and taught a criminal defense clinic at the University of Florida for 16 years. In 2018, she started one of the state’s conviction integrity units. It was housed in the office of former 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
Zeigler’s petition for testing was one of the first she reviewed.
Zeigler’s lawyers had initially sought early DNA testing in 1994. He was allowed in 2001, and the results appeared to support his claim of innocence. Forensic tests on four tiny 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 balked. They said the testing would not automatically exonerate Zeigler, as Florida’s 2001 DNA testing law mandated. They referred to witnesses, including Zeigler’s handyman, who had said on the witness stand that Zeigler tried to shoot him.
But Zeigler’s New York lawyers, Dennis Tracey and David Michaeli, argued in pleadings that if he had murdered four people, his victims’ blood should be detectable on his clothes. His father-in-law’s fingernail clippings sit in evidence storage and have never been tested — even though the minister from Georgia fought with someone throughout the dark store.
After Worrell reviewed Zeigler’s case for the conviction integrity unit, she urged then-State Attorney Ayala to support Zeigler’s efforts.
“Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing?” she wrote. “Absolutely not.”
But Ayala rejected Worrell’s recommendation, writing that testing the evidence would not outright exonerate him, since there were so many other factors to consider about Zeigler’s involvement in the murders.
Again, Zeigler saw his chances slip away.
Worrell said her experience looking at Zeigler’s and Sireci’s cases and others made her realize she needed to run for state attorney.
“It was realizing how much room for injustice there was in our system,” she said, after being sworn in on the steps of Orlando City Hall on a chilly morning in January 2021. “It was realizing we were sending people to prison based on unreliable testimony of eyewitnesses, knowing there is science that says that faulty eyewitness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in this country — that we were actually sending people to death based on that.”
Four months after taking office, Worrell agreed to sign a joint application to the court for DNA testing.
When Terry Hadley received the application in a May 2021 email, he teared up. One of Zeigler’s earliest attorneys, Hadley felt so strongly about Zeigler’s innocence that he’d left criminal law altogether.
But his euphoria would be short-lived.
Chances slip away again
Within two weeks, Moody’s office fired off a notice, arguing that the DNA tests would not immediately exonerate Zeigler, though the prisoner’s lawyers said it would.
“It absolutely nauseates me that anyone would go to these kinds of gross lengths,” Hadley said at the time, “to prevent this man from doing his DNA testing.”
A few weeks after that, Moody’s office filed a notice seeking to also tamp down on testing in Sireci’s case, which Circuit Judge Wayne C. Wooten had already approved.
For the next 16 months, the parties would tussle over territory and who had the authority to grant the inmates DNA testing, leaving Zeigler’s case at a standstill.
In a hearing on Sireci’s case, Judge Wooten said he did not believe that Moody’s office had standing to stop the testing. Voters had elected Worrell to prosecute in Orange and Osceola counties, he said, which implied they wanted her to handle prosecutions.
Assistant Attorney General Scott Browne argued for a “carve-out” that would give the attorney general’s office equal standing in death penalty cases, but the judge disagreed.
Still, after Judge Wooten released Sireci’s evidence for testing more than a year ago, Moody’s office appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
Nine months later, on July 1, the justices issued a short decision, without explanation, agreeing with Wooten’s decision. Sireci could proceed.
“It’s a relatively cryptic, short ruling, but we do know that the arguments of the (attorney general) were laid out,” Strowbridge said in court Thursday.
That they didn’t address the attorney general’s role, she said, could only mean that they agreed with the judge in Sireci’s case.
“And I’m not going to step in to interfere with that.”