Second man on Florida’s death row to have DNA testing after prosecutor signs off

Henry Sireci, like Tommy Zeigler, has been on death row 45 years
Henry Sireci in an early mugshot.
Henry Sireci in an early mugshot. [ Handout ]
Published May 25, 2021|Updated May 25, 2021

A second inmate on Florida’s death row has been granted DNA testing by the Orange County state attorney.

Henry Sireci, 72, had sought the testing for almost two decades. Earlier this month, State Attorney Monique H. Worrell agreed to grant his request.

Worrell also is supporting DNA testing in the case of Tommy Zeigler, 75. Both men have been on death row since 1976. They faced the same prosecutor and judge in their original trials, and now-discredited scientific evidence swayed their juries.

Sireci, also known as Butch Blackstone, was convicted of stabbing to death Howard Poteet, an Orlando used car lot owner, on Dec. 3, 1975, and 7-Eleven clerk John Leonard Short three days before.

Sireci has always maintained his innocence, said Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel with the Innocence Project in New York. The case against him was based on testimony from seven people who indicated he admitted to killing Poteet.

The physical evidence against Sireci included a hair found on Poteet’s sock. A lab analyst said it was microscopically identical to Sireci’s hair, but the science has now been discredited. The analyst also said the blood on a denim jacket believed to be Sireci’s matched Poteet’s blood group.

Worrell agreed to let the Innocence Project conduct fingerprint analysis and test the denim jacket and the hair, as well as half a dozen other pieces of evidence, including bloody towels.

The evidence will be sent to the Forensic Analytical Crime Laboratory in Hayward, Calif. It’s the same lab that tested the evidence in the case of Robert Duboise, who was freed from prison last August, after 37 years. DNA testing proved Duboise innocent of a 1983 Tampa rape and murder.

The lab will forward some of the hairs in evidence to Mitotyping Technologies in State College, Pa., for mitochondrial analysis, which traces maternal links.

Sireci’s lawyers began seeking DNA testing in 2003. A former state attorney agreed to limited tests of some items about a decade ago, which only revealed the victim’s DNA.

Morrison, who represents Sireci, said it’s been “a long and winding road for a simple DNA test.”

“We’re quite pleased,” she said, “that the state attorney has now recognized that it’s in the interests of justice to do all possible DNA testing before a man who has been maintaining innocence for four-and-a-half decades is executed.”

In an interview Monday, Worrell said it was not a tough decision to grant the requests.

“This is just about the fact that there have been advancements in DNA science that have produced exonerations,” she said, “and when you have someone who is charged with murder, particularly someone who has been sentenced to death, I don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring advancements in science that may be able to prove their innocence.”

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Asked if she had faced opposition within her office to the decisions, Worrell said she had not.

“I didn’t receive any pushback,” she said, “but I also didn’t ask anyone for their opinion.”

The prosecutor’s office in Orange County had denied the requests repeatedly over the years, insisting that justice was served in both Sireci’s and Zeigler’s cases. They also said the testing would not clearly exonerate the men, which is a standard outlined in a 2001 Florida law.

In 2016, Sireci’s request for DNA testing reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case. Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, questioning whether Sireci’s decades on death row violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“When he was first sentenced to death, the Berlin Wall stood firmly in place. Saigon had just fallen. Few Americans knew of the personal computer or the Internet. And over half of all Americans now alive had not yet been born, " Breyer wrote.

A judge must still sign off on Zeigler’s request for DNA. When that happens, Worrell said her office will be present to document the evidence that is turned over.

Circuit Judge Wayne C. Wooten signed off on Sireci’s request May 7. Morrison said the lab usually takes a couple months.

Worrell said once the results come back, the defense lawyers can file a motion for dismissal or a new trial. She said her office would “make the appropriate move at that point,” depending on the results.

She said she is not aware of any other pending requests for DNA testing in her office.

Dennis Tracey, who has been handling Zeigler’s appeals since the late 1980s and whose New York firm, Hogan Lovells, will pay for the DNA testing, said Zeigler’s attorneys are interviewing labs.

“Tommy almost died from COVID-19 while waiting for the testing,” Tracey said, “so we’re just very grateful he made it through, and he’ll be with us to see this testing accomplished.”

Zeigler’s case was the subject of an investigative series and podcast, Blood and Truth, in the Tampa Bay Times. The Times found that Zeigler was one of almost two dozen men sent to death row in the 1970s and 1980s who hadn’t been able to get advanced DNA testing.

Morrison said the breakthrough in Orange County shows the power of prosecutors.

Worrell took office in January.

“It’s a very stark example of why elections matter,” Morrison said.