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Tommy Zeigler case inspires legislator to change Florida’s DNA law

Bill would lower threshold for testing, which has limited many death row inmates in their appeals.
Squares from the shirt Tommy Zeigler was wearing on the night of the murders have been DNA tested, supporting his version of events. But further tests have been rejected by courts and prosecutors. [Photo from court files]

A state legislator plans to introduce legislation that would give Florida inmates more access to forensic testing.

Rep. Jamie Grant, the Republican chairman of the House criminal justice subcommittee, said he was moved, in part, by the case of Tommy Zeigler.

The 74-year-old Zeigler, convicted of killing his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975, has now been denied DNA testing six times. His story was featured in a series and podcast by the Tampa Bay Times called Blood and Truth.

Grant said the law would allow DNA testing in cases where it might only provide evidence of innocence.

Currently, inmates are rejected by courts and prosecutors if the DNA testing wouldn’t clearly exonerate.

Grant, whose House district includes parts of northern Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said it’s fairer to have a lower threshold. To prevent prisoners from overusing it, Grant would require the inmate’s DNA be deposited into a newly created state database to be checked for other crimes.

State Attorney Aramis Ayala turned down Zeigler’s latest request for DNA testing last year, saying she didn’t think the forensic analysis would exonerate him. Ayala overruled her conviction integrity unit, which urged her last spring to agree to the testing, saying it was Florida’s “moral obligation.”

As it stands now, inmates who have been in prison the longest have the hardest time getting the courts to allow them to test evidence, even when they are willing to pay for it.

“Somebody like Tommy…. effectively has to identify the perpetrator,” Grant said.

Changing the rules to allow more testing, he said, “leads us to a place as a society and a culture that increases the credibility of a conviction or helps us discover that the wrong person is in prison.”

***

When police arrived at Zeigler’s furniture store on that Christmas Eve, he fell into the arms of an officer. He said he’d been shot in a gunfight with a customer and others who tried to rob him.

But police focused almost immediately on Zeigler, thanks largely to a man who said Zeigler had tried to shoot him earlier that night at the store. The lead detective pointed to a $500,000 insurance policy Zeigler purchased on his wife’s life months before.

A bullet casing lies in front of Zeigler Furniture Store in Winter Garden on Dec 24, 1975. Police quickly zeroed in on Tommy Zeigler as their suspect. [Photo from court file]

Defense lawyers claimed that the accuser lied, and they said Zeigler didn’t need the money.

The case went to trial five months after the crime, even though defense attorneys hadn’t finished interviewing the state’s witnesses. They were denied more time.

The jury was split, at first, but later found Zeigler guilty. It said he should get life in prison.

The judge sentenced him, instead, to death.

• • •

Forty four years and dozens of appeals later, the case is still a swarm of competing facts. New revelations continue to raise doubts in the state’s case.

In 2001, a little more than a decade after DNA was first used to convict someone, Zeigler’s lawyers won a limited DNA test of the shirt he wore the night of the murders. It did not turn up the blood of his father-in-law, who was shot at close range and savagely beaten with a metal crank. Experts say Zeigler’s shirt should be covered in backspatter.

Police reports unearthed in recent years also revealed that two other businesses faced break-ins or attempted break-ins on the night of the murders.

But Zeigler’s New York attorneys, who have worked to free him for three decades, have been unable to get the evidence tested using modern DNA techniques.

For almost two decades, former Orange-Osceola State Attorney Jeff Ashton fought attempts to test the fingernails of Zeigler’s father-in-law, the blood discovered on Eunice Zeigler’s blouse beneath her coat or the rest of the clothes Tommy Zeigler wore that night. The evidence is stored in a climate-controlled locker in Orlando.

Then, in 2016, Ayala beat Ashton.

Ayala, a death penalty opponent, started a conviction integrity unit and urged those with questions about their convictions to submit applications. Zeigler’s lawyers had already submitted a 47-page memorandum with 404 pages of exhibits in April 2018. They met with the unit in March 2019.

Then they waited.

• • •

The Times asked Ayala, through her spokeswoman, for comment at least eight times in 2019. But she refused all requests for an interview. So the Times submitted a records request to the Ninth Judicial Circuit last September, seeking emails and documents related to Zeigler’s review.

The documents arrived a month later and outlined the disagreement within Ayala’s office over Zeigler’s case. The conviction integrity unit, led by Monique Haughton Worrell, had recommended in March 2019 that Ayala support Zeigler’s DNA testing application.

But months later, Worrell left for a new job and Amanda Simpaio Bova replaced her as the unit’s director. Documents show Bova and others in Ayala’s office questioned the recommendation in Zeigler’s case. They did not feel it would lead to an exoneration.

But no one notified Zeigler’s lawyers of a decision. They read the news in the Times.

In late October, Zeigler’s lawyers sent Ayala a letter, asking for an explanation.

A month later, they filed their own public records request. The documents arrived in early December and contained a letter written by Ayala a month before, on Nov. 5, turning down Zeigler’s application.

In the letter (which the lawyers say they never received directly), Ayala told them that when she first became state attorney, she looked at Zeigler’s case and decided that it did not qualify for DNA testing. But she asked the conviction integrity unit to make certain nothing had been overlooked.

Ayala declined to speak to the Times again last month, but last week, she agreed to a phone interview. She said she wanted to clarify her position on Zeigler’s case.

State Attorney Aramis Ayala is opposed to the death penalty, a position that put her at odds with former Gov. Rick Scott.

Ayala acknowledged the investigation and the trial gave her pause but that wasn’t enough to overcome the case against Zeigler.

She said she asked his attorneys, multiple times, to cite evidence that would support a claim of innocence. “To this day, I have not seen that.”

Ayala said she supports DNA testing when the analysis would clarify the truth, but she believes the forensic review in Zeigler’s case would make it “blurry” and she doesn’t believe in giving him “another stab at the apple.”

Worrell, the former conviction integrity unit director, said she stood by her decision, but she also supported Ayala. “We had a fundamental difference in philosophy,” said Worrell, who taught a criminal defense clinic at the University of Florida for 16 years.

Asked if she drew any conclusions about the Zeigler case from her review, Worrell said: “I think what you want to know is do I feel in my heart that Tommy Zeigler is innocent and the answer is I don’t know. ...There’s nothing that speaks to me that says that he was definitely innocent. But I do believe there’s a doubt as to whether or not he was guilty and that for me was enough to move forward.”

Randy E. Loboda, a law school intern and former homicide investigator who retired after 33 years with the Dallas Police Department, said he spent 250 hours reviewing the Zeigler file while working with Worrell. He said he believes Zeigler is likely guilty. But he also wanted to see the fingernail clippings of the victims tested for DNA.

“You have the fingernails and you don’t process them?” he said in a phone interview. “From my standpoint, I would not want to execute Tommy Zeigler if … there is a possibility someone else is involved.”

Zeigler’s attorneys were devastated by Ayala’s decision. “I thought more highly of her than that,” said Terry Hadley, who defended Zeigler at his original trial.

David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, said he believes the DNA testing could exonerate Zeigler. If the blood of the victims is not on Zeigler’s shirt, he said, then Zeigler could not have killed them, and he was a victim of robbery, as he initially claimed.

“Tommy Zeigler has been seeking DNA testing for 25 years, which is a staggering amount of time,” Michaeli said. “The court has set the bar impossibly high.”

• • •

Last June, Rep. Grant instructed his staff to research how other states handle DNA testing. He’d listened to the Times podcast on a trip up and back to Tallahassee. He believed forensic science reforms were needed in Florida.

Grant, 37, was elected almost a decade ago to the Florida House. His father, a well-known politician, served in both the Florida House and Senate for two decades beginning in 1980. Like his father and his brother, he’s a lawyer.

He said Zeigler’s case, in particular, “put a face and a case around some of the things that we knew were true when it came to forensic evidence and where there were probably some inequities and some injustices.”

Zeigler is one of almost two dozen men sent to death row in the 1970s and 1980s who can’t get advanced DNA testing of evidence even though Florida passed a law in 2001 to create the opportunity. That law set the exoneration standard.

Grant said the change to the DNA testing law is a priority of his, and he will likely introduce it as part of a committee bill or a larger criminal justice bill to give it the best shot. His staff has patterned the bill after one in Arizona. Inmates would be required to go through the courts to obtain the testing and there would be some limits. But no inmate would be denied, as Zeigler has been, just because the test alone might not prove innocence.

• • •

Zeigler, interviewed on death row recently, said he was not surprised by the latest rejection.

“I quit being surprised. I quit being angry,” he said. “Anger’s like cancer. It’ll eat you up. I just accept it and let it roll.”

He said he was disappointed in Ayala. “She could have made so much difference in that office if she had just thought about what she was doing.”

He said he’d love another day in court.

“I don’t want them to say, ‘Go home, Tommy,’ ” he said. “I want 12 men and women of the state of Florida to say: ‘Not guilty.’ ”

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