Florida attorney general drops challenge in Zeigler DNA dispute

The death row inmate of 47 years can continue testing evidence he believes will prove him innocent in a quadruple murder case.
Inmate William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler, on Florida's death row in Union Correctional Institution, hopes that DNA testing of evidence in his case will set him free.
Inmate William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler, on Florida's death row in Union Correctional Institution, hopes that DNA testing of evidence in his case will set him free. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 9

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office has removed the final hurdle in death row inmate Tommy Zeigler’s yearslong push for DNA testing, voluntarily dropping its appeal to stop the forensic analysis.

On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, which sought to halt the DNA testing and have the evidence already being tested in California returned.

Zeigler, 77, has been on death row for 47 years for the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975. Zeigler, who was shot in the stomach at the store that night, has always denied the murders and says he was the victim of a robbery.

Zeigler’s attorneys expressed relief that the testing could finally go forward after so many years of fighting. Judges have denied the inmate’s efforts to analyze dozens of pieces of evidence, including never-before-tested fingernail clippings of the victims, at least six times.

“We’ve never had the other side fold up their tent and go away, and they just did, so God bless them,” said Terry Hadley, Zeigler’s original trial lawyer, who left criminal law almost five decades ago because he was disillusioned by Zeigler’s case. “We can now do all the testing we desire. And as the experts have told us ... it will prove whether Tommy Zeigler is guilty or innocent.”

Zeigler’s DNA testing is being paid for by Hogan Lovells, the global law firm that employs his New York attorneys. They have been with him since 1987 and work on his case for free.

Zeigler’s attorneys said it was hard to understand why so much effort was put into fighting the DNA testing.

“The hostility to testing was extraordinary,” said David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, observing that officials should want to seek the truth.

Michaeli said the firm wired $63,000 to the Forensic Analytical Crime Lab on Tuesday for the first phase of testing, which has already begun.

“Tommy Zeigler was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, in-laws and another man by firing more than 30 rounds, killing two of his victims and bludgeoning the others with a metal crank,” a spokesperson for Attorney General Moody’s office wrote in an email Tuesday. “He was sentenced to death not once, but twice, and previous DNA testing failed to produce exculpatory evidence. Our office has an obligation to ensure post-conviction rules and laws are followed, and we will continue to uphold this responsibility on behalf of the victims, their families and the State of Florida.”

The Tampa Bay Times explored Zeigler’s case in a 2018 series and podcast called “Blood and Truth,” which found that almost two dozen inmates sent to death row in the 1970s and 1980s have been denied DNA testing despite a law passed in 2001 to enable such testing. Nine others, including Zeigler, were prevented from performing more tests or advanced analysis.

Related: Read the project: Blood and Truth

Zeigler’s story will also to be the subject of a documentary, to be called “Blood and Judgment,” that will focus on his five-decade effort to exonerate himself. Andy Breckman, who created the USA Today Network comedy series “Monk” is producing it along with Left/Right, a New York TV and film company.

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In an interview on death row this past week, the 6-foot Zeigler, who has struggled with health problems and now weighs 135 pounds, said he feels healthy now. He said he never got a fair trial in 1976. Referring to the DNA testing, he said, “This is my trial.”