State attorney rejects death row inmate’s DNA appeal

Unit that reviewed Tommy Zeigler’s case argued that Florida had a ‘moral’ obligation to allow testing.
Tommy Zeigler was arrested days after the  Christmas Eve 1975 slayings of his wife, in-laws and a customer in his Winter Garden furniture store.
Tommy Zeigler was arrested days after the Christmas Eve 1975 slayings of his wife, in-laws and a customer in his Winter Garden furniture store. [ Times files ]
Published Oct. 18, 2019|Updated Oct. 23, 2019

State Attorney Aramis Ayala has rejected death row inmate Tommy Zeigler’s latest request for advanced DNA analysis even though her conviction integrity unit urged her in April to grant it, saying it was Florida’s “moral” obligation.

Ayala’s office in Orlando has not informed Zeigler or his attorneys of the decision. It appears to have been made in the middle of the summer after the integrity unit chief’s departure, according to documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times this week.

READ THE ORIGINAL SERIES: Could DNA prove him innocent? Florida doesn’t want to know.

In March, attorneys for Zeigler flew in from New York to meet with Ayala’s newly created Ninth Judicial Circuit conviction integrity unit about their client’s sixth request for DNA testing. They argued that clothing, fingernail scrapings and guns still in evidence at a climate-controlled locker in Orlando would show Zeigler could not have murdered his family.

Zeigler, 74, was convicted of killing his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975, but he has always maintained they were the victims of a robbery. He has been on death row for 43 years.

This is the shirt Tommy Zeigler was wearing Christmas Eve 1975, and it's been in evidence all these years. (Orange County court file)
This is the shirt Tommy Zeigler was wearing Christmas Eve 1975, and it's been in evidence all these years. (Orange County court file) [ CHERIE DIEZ ]

Monique Haughton Worrell, the conviction integrity unit’s first director, informed Zeigler’s lawyers at that March meeting that the members of the unit had read the 3,000-page trial transcript and gone through the court file. Zeigler’s longtime attorney, Terry Hadley, walked away feeling like Zeigler would get the testing.

Weeks later, on April 10, Haughton Worrell and a law school intern, a former Dallas detective with 30 years on the force, submitted a memorandum to Ayala outlining why they thought Zeigler deserved the forensic analysis.

“If additional DNA testing can provide closure of issues related to Mr. Zeigler’s conviction, the State has a moral obligation to embrace the opportunity to show that ‘they did it right,’ ” the memo stated. It said Zeigler received “a less than fair trial.”

But sometime between April and July, when Haughton Worrell was replaced, the decision was made to deny Zeigler the DNA testing. Documents show others in the office that serves Orange and Osceola counties, including the chief of investigations, questioned the conclusion of the conviction integrity unit.

On Sept. 6, a day after the Times filed a public records request for the unit’s documents related to Zeigler, the new director, Amanda Sampaio Bova, wrote her own memo.

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“Though I have not had the time to personally examine the entire case file,” wrote Bova, who began her job July 8, “I have reviewed enough to be familiar with the facts … Because retesting of evidence would not lead to an exoneration, I do not see that further investigation by the CIR (conviction integrity unit) is justified.”

Bova said she found Haughton Worrell’s memo “problematic,” because it had “factual inconsistencies, makes unsupported assumptions and neglects to indicate that the results of retesting the DNA would not conclusively exonerate Mr. Zeigler.” Her memo did not provide specifics.

Bova goes on to explain that she and Chief of Investigations William Eric Edwards, who worked at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for 16 years, met with Ayala on July 31 to discuss concerns they had with Haughton Worrell’s recommendation. Edwards joined the office in 2013, under Ayala’s predecessor, Jeff Ashton, who regularly fought Zeigler’s DNA requests.

“You advised that you had personally reviewed the case and found that further investigation was unwarranted,” Bova wrote to Ayala. “Furthermore, you made it clear that you did not agree with the assertions made in that memo.”

Bova and Ayala could not be reached for comment. Ayala has consistently refused requests by the Times over the past year to discuss Zeigler’s case.

Zeigler was the subject last year of a multi-part investigation, Blood and Truth, in the Times. The series documented how Florida judges and prosecutors repeatedly denied DNA testing to death row inmates, despite legislation passed in 2001 meant to allow modern science to correct old errors.

Rep. Jamie Grant, an attorney and Republican from Tampa representing portions of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, said Friday one of his priorities this coming session is a DNA testing law for inmates. Grant, chairman of the House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he doesn’t want to open the gates to frivolous appeals. But he said he does not believe that DNA should only be granted if the results would exonerate.

“The express intent here is for cases like Tommy Zeigler’s,” Grant said.

RELATED: Listen to the Blood and Truth podcast

Police immediately focused on Zeigler in the aftermath of the slayings in the central Florida town of Winter Garden. They speculated he did it for an insurance payout on his wife. But he had no criminal history, and the case against him was based mostly on circumstantial evidence and now-discredited blood spatter analysis.

Zeigler's pants and other clothing also are in evidence. (Orange County court file)
Zeigler's pants and other clothing also are in evidence. (Orange County court file) [ CHERIE DIEZ ]
Other items in evidence include a paper that had been in Zeigler's pocket. (Orange County court file)
Other items in evidence include a paper that had been in Zeigler's pocket. (Orange County court file) [ CHERIE DIEZ ]

Reached by phone Friday, Haughton Worrell said she left the conviction integrity unit to become chief legal officer for REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice advocacy group. She said she had other cases, but she spent most of her time at the State Attorney’s Office reviewing Zeigler’s file, which was massive.

Haughton Worrell, who spent 16 years at the University of Florida teaching a criminal defense clinic and was director of the Criminal Justice Center, said she supports Ayala’s decision. “She’s state attorney,” she said, “so she has the ability to look at cases from all angles. My perspective on reviewing this case is very narrow.”

But in her April 10 memo to Ayala, she seemed adamant that Zeigler receive the testing. She pointed out that as of that date, there had been 2,413 exonerations in the United States, with more than 21,095 years lost.

“The basis of the American Judicial System is founded under the tenets of ‘good faith,’ ” Haughton Worrell wrote. “Can the state of Florida legally decline to support additional DNA testing? Absolutely. Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing? Absolutely not.”

Ayala’s office created a conviction integrity unit in 2018, a concept that first emerged in Dallas in 2007 and spread to New York, Chicago and Houston. State attorneys covering Hillsborough, Nassau, Clay and Duval counties have established them, too.

Twenty-nine people have been exonerated from Florida’s death row, more than any other state in the country, though rarely because of DNA.

Zeigler is one of almost two-dozen men sent to death row in the 1970s and 1980s who haven’t been able to obtain advanced DNA testing of evidence.

A Times review of 46 men on death row who asked for permission to conduct DNA testing found that judges turned down 38 of them at least once. Nineteen men were denied all DNA testing, including eight who were later executed.

Another 17 death row inmates, including Zeigler, were allowed tests initially but then denied more advanced testing, including touch DNA.

A 49-page petition submitted by Zeigler’s attorneys to Ayala outlines how the DNA testing would exonerate Zeigler and offers to cover the costs. The request notes that during their first meeting with Ayala in 2017, the prosecutor told Zeigler’s lawyers that she would only join in the DNA request if she could be persuaded that “Mr. Zeigler would walk free.”

EARLIER STORY: State attorney’s office reviewing 1975 murder case recently featured in Times series

Zeigler’s lawyers maintain that today’s sensitive DNA tests, which can detect even skin cells, are revolutionary.

The lawyers say the tests could 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. Perry Edwards Sr., the most viciously attacked, likely fought with his killer, so touch DNA would be on his clothes and under his fingernails.

“If Zeigler has none of the victims’ blood on his clothes,” the lawyers say, “then he did not kill them.”

Zeigler had felt so strongly that the DNA tests would exonerate him, his lawyers argued, that he was willing to ask the governor for his immediate execution if the tests prove him guilty.

Zeigler’s private investigator, Lynn-Marie Carty, who has worked on the case since 2011, said the decision from Ayala’s office is “beyond unbelievable.

“I don’t know who had their hand in this, but the entire world will be appalled.”

One of his lawyers expressed shock that Ayala would go against her own conviction integrity unit, which spent so much time studying the case.

“I’m just stunned, heartbroken and horrified all at once,” said Hadley, one of Zeigler’s original trial attorneys on Friday. “And they didn’t even have the common decency to notify us.”