Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Florida

State attorney agrees to let Tommy Zeigler perform DNA testing

Florida death row inmate had been seeking the tests for two decades.
Tommy Zeigler has been on death row since 1976.
Tommy Zeigler has been on death row since 1976.
Published May 20
Updated May 20

An Orange County prosecutor has upended decades of rejections by the Florida judicial system, agreeing to support death row inmate Tommy Zeigler’s request for DNA testing.

Ninth Judicial State Attorney Monique H. Worrell will back the effort, which has been denied at least six times over two decades. An agreement, signed by one of her assistant state attorneys on May 18, releases all of the evidence in Zeigler’s case to his attorneys for testing at a lab certified by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Zeigler was elated at the news.

“I am hoping and praying,” he wrote in an email today, “that the test results come back with enough evidence to force the court to grant me a new trial!”

Zeigler believes the tests will prove he did not murder his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975.

His appeals lawyers argue his victims’ blood should still be detectable on his clothes if he committed the murders. His father-in-law’s fingernail clippings also could hold answers, since he fought with someone throughout the dark store before being shot and bludgeoned with a metal crank.

Zeigler’s lawyers are willing to pay for the testing and hope to expedite it. Zeigler is now 75, and his health is fragile. He has struggled with breathing and heart problems since contracting the coronavirus last summer.

Even with Worrell’s support, the request for DNA testing must still be approved by a judge. But legal motions for testing with support of the prosecutor typically are not rejected.

“I feel like getting a drink and going out and dancing in the street,” said Terry Hadley, Zeigler’s original defense attorney. “When they first said it, I started crying. It touched me so. I mean this man deserves a fair chance to prove his innocence.”

Related: Read the Tampa Bay Times series about Zeigler's case

Worrell first arrived at the Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Orlando office in 2018, tasked with creating its first conviction integrity unit. She’d been an assistant public defender, a criminal defense attorney and spent 16 years at the University of Florida teaching a criminal defense clinic and was director of its Criminal Justice Center.

In her new role, she reviewed old Orange and Osceola County cases to see if there was something prosecutors missed.

Zeigler’s request for DNA testing was one of the first to land on her desk.

The case is the subject of a 2018 series and ongoing podcast, Blood and Truth, from the Tampa Bay Times. The Times raised questions about the state’s repeated refusals over advanced and inclusive DNA testing.

Zeigler’s lawyers had initially requested DNA testing in 1994.

In 2001, a judge granted the testing, and the results appeared to back Zeigler’s story. Forensic tests on four tiny squares of Zeigler’s plaid trousers and corduroy shirt failed to detect his family members’ blood.

When Zeigler’s lawyers asked to test all of Zeigler’s outfit and later asked to use touch DNA, Florida prosecutors and judges said no. In judicial opinions that reached the Florida Supreme Court, they argued the testing would not immediately exonerate Zeigler, as Florida’s 2001 DNA law mandated. They pointed to witnesses, including Zeigler’s handyman, Edward Williams, who went to police with one of the murder weapons.

Williams, now deceased, told police he went to the furniture store to help Zeigler deliver last-minute Christmas gifts. Zeigler tried to shoot him with a gun, then handed it to him when it malfunctioned, Williams testified. Zeigler has always said he entered the back of the store and someone hit him over the head. He said he lost his glasses and was shot in the stomach with a .357 handgun.

A detective points to a bullet casing in front of the Zeigler Furniture Store. In 1975, police quickly narrowed in on Zeigler as the culprit, and he was convicted about six months after the killings, despite pleas from his defense lawyers for more time to prepare.
A detective points to a bullet casing in front of the Zeigler Furniture Store. In 1975, police quickly narrowed in on Zeigler as the culprit, and he was convicted about six months after the killings, despite pleas from his defense lawyers for more time to prepare.

After reviewing Zeigler’s case, Worrell felt strongly that he had not received a fair trial.

She urged then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala in an April 2019 memo to conduct the DNA testing.

“Can the state of Florida legally decline to support additional DNA testing? Absolutely,” she wrote. “Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing? Absolutely not.”

A few months later, Worrell left the office to work as chief legal officer for the REFORM Alliance, a New York nonprofit created by Jay-Z and Meek Mill that is devoted to probation and parole reform.

Ayala quietly turned down Zeigler’s request and closed his case, repeating what the courts have ruled, that it would not outright exonerate him. But no one informed his lawyers, who learned about it from the Times.

“The entire process has not been handled as it should have been,” said David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, in a phone interview earlier this year. “And if you don’t have a criminal justice system that works for Tommy Zeigler, you don’t have one that works for me or you, either.”

Worrell became the state attorney in January, after winning election last November.

Soon after she took office, Zeigler’s attorneys sent her a letter, asking her to approve the DNA testing. They heard nothing for four months.

Then Hadley reached out again last week.

“I am now personally begging you for the opportunity for us to test this evidence,” Hadley wrote, “and prove to the world that the state of Florida is seeking justice in this cause.”

Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at llapeter@tampabay.com or 727-433-1446. Follow @WriterLeonora.