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Tommy Zeigler may have another chance at DNA testing

Monique Worrell, who supported the death row inmate's request, wins Democratic primary for state attorney in Orlando.

Last year, attorney Monique Worrell oversaw the Ninth Judicial District State Attorney’s Office review of the case against death row inmate Tommy Zeigler. At the end of it, she urged State Attorney Aramis Ayala to allow Zeigler to test the evidence against him for DNA.

Ayala refused. She said it would not outright exonerate him of killing his wife and three others at his Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975, just raise more questions about his guilt.

Last week, Worrell won the Democratic primary for Ayala’s job, meaning in five months, she’ll likely have the power to take down the barriers to forensic testing in Zeigler’s case. During the last two decades, Zeigler has been denied advanced DNA testing six times. His lawyers want to analyze fingernail clippings, clothing and guns still in climate-controlled storage in Orlando.

“His life will be in her hands, and those are the best hands right now, and I know she’ll care,” said Lynn-Marie Carty-Wallace, a private investigator who has spent the last decade working on Zeigler’s case.

Worrell faces an independent candidate in November, but no Republican challenger emerged. She beat three experienced insiders in the primary with 43 percent of the vote, including Belvin Perry Jr., the former district chief judge who presided over Casey Anthony’s murder trial in Orlando for the death of her 2-year-old daughter.

Worrell’s campaign focused on reforms to the juvenile justice system, police accountability and an end to mass incarceration, among other things. She connected with protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

In a phone interview a few days before the election, Worrell would not commit to a course of action in Zeigler’s case. “But I can tell you my opinion on that case has not changed,” she said. Once elected, she plans to ask the current director of the Conviction Integrity and Accountability Unit for an update on all cases she recommended for further review when she was director and founder of the unit.

It’s hard to imagine she will block DNA testing in Zeigler’s case based on what she has said and recommended in the past.

“The basis of the American Judicial System is founded under the tenets of ‘good faith,’ " Worrell wrote in April 2019, in a memo urging Ayala to conduct the DNA testing in Zeigler’s case. “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.”

Worrell’s report said Florida should “show they did it right.”

Monique Worrell won the Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Democratic primary last week. [ Courtesy of Monique Worrell ]

Worrell spent 16 years at the University of Florida teaching a criminal defense clinic and was director of its Criminal Justice Center. She left the Ninth Judicial District State Attorney’s Office last summer and took a job as chief legal officer at Reform Alliance, a New York nonprofit created by Jay-Z and Meek Mill that is devoted to probation and parole reform.

But working more than a year as founder and director of Ayala’s office on wrongful convictions in Orange and Osceola counties, a seed was planted, she said.

“A lot of the practices that were the leading causes of wrongful convictions were still being practiced in that office,” Worrell said, “and I felt strongly that having a person who cared about these issues in the seat of state attorney would really make a difference.”

When no other candidates that she perceived as reform-minded stepped in, she decided to run. She received endorsements from singer John Legend and Democrats Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. She also received a last-minute influx of cash from a political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros.

The win gives Zeigler’s attorneys hope — yet again.

“We are really excited that with Worrell in office, we will finally have a fair-minded and reasonable person that we can work with on the other side to get … this evidence tested so we can finally find out what happened that night Christmas Eve 45 years ago,” said David Michaeli, one of the New York appeals lawyers representing Zeigler. “The system has gone all out to block us from doing just that.”

Terry Hadley, who represented Zeigler at his original trial and believes in his innocence, said Worrell “is the one who said we had not gotten a fair trial in her report, so we’re extremely hopeful that it’s going to be the breakthrough we need.”

He said he hopes Worrell will join a motion to the court to do DNA testing at the expense of Zeigler’s lawyers.

Zeigler’s supporters believe this is one of the biggest shifts in the case’s four-decade history.

It comes a week after the resignation of James Grant, the state House District 64 representative from Tampa who earlier this year sponsored a bill borne out of the state’s refusal to grant DNA in Zeigler’s case. He resigned to take a job as Florida’s chief information officer in charge of technology.

Grant’s bill, which passed the House unanimously but did not get taken up in the Senate, would have allowed DNA testing where it might only provide evidence of innocence, such as in Zeigler’s case. Prosecutors and courts in Florida currently refuse inmates if the DNA testing won’t clearly exonerate, such as when DNA in a rape points to another culprit.

Zeigler is one of almost two dozen men sent to death row in the 1970s and 1980s who has been denied advanced DNA testing, according to a Tampa Bay Times series, Blood and Truth. The stories showed how Florida judges and prosecutors repeatedly denied the forensic testing, despite legislation passed in 2001 meant to allow modern science to correct old errors. That law set the exoneration standard.

Grant had said he would seek a Senate sponsor this year before trying to get the bill passed in 2021. Grant said he would still urge colleagues to support the legislation.

Inside a cell on Florida’s death row on election night, Zeigler lay awake, waiting for the results of the state attorney primary in Orange County. He said he got on his knees a lot and prayed.

A little after 4 a.m., an email finally arrived on his tablet.

“Monique Worrell won,” one of his loyal supporters had written.

“Mrs. Worrell’s victory is a gift and blessing to each and every citizen of Orange and Osceola counties,” he wrote in an email. “I knew that she had an uphill battle.”

Michaeli, the New York attorney, said the Zeigler case represents much more than one man; it’s about the system working fairly for all. Defendants across the country face impediments to DNA testing, he said.

“And if you don’t have a criminal justice system that works for Tommy Zeigler? Guess what?” Michaeli said. “You don’t have a criminal justice system that works for you or me or for anyone.”

Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at llapeter@tampabay.com. Follow @WriterLeonora.

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