Inside the newsroom: Tampa Bay Times project team takes a deep dive inside a notorious Florida death penalty case

A project team at the Tampa Bay Times explores the death penalty in Florida through a notorious 1975 murder case.
William “Tommy” Zeigler, photographed on Florida’s Death Row at Union Correctional Institution earlier this year, was convicted of murdering his wife, in-laws and another man at his family furniture store on Christmas Eve in 1975 in Winter Garden. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
William “Tommy” Zeigler, photographed on Florida’s Death Row at Union Correctional Institution earlier this year, was convicted of murdering his wife, in-laws and another man at his family furniture store on Christmas Eve in 1975 in Winter Garden. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published November 16
Updated November 20

Her editor describes Leonora LaPeter Anton as Columbo, the rumpled TV detective who searched for the truth each week by sorting through random clues.

Meticulous and thorough.

Only she can write.

We are getting ready to publish her six-part serial narrative, “Blood and Truth.” The series is set to appear online and in print beginning Nov. 25.

For eight years, Anton kept an eye on the case of Tommy Zeigler before giving it her full attention earlier this year.

Do you remember Tommy Zeigler? At 73, he is one of the longest-serving inmates on Florida’s death row. He was accused of murdering his wife, in-laws and a customer at his family-owned furniture store in 1975. Zeigler was convicted and sentenced to death the following year.

Since then, nearly 100 fellow inmates have been marched to the electric chair or pumped with a cocktail of life-ending drugs.

All these years later, Anton and photojournalist Cherie Diez felt there was more to his story. But they had other projects to finish, including one that won Anton the Pulitzer Prize.

When they turned back to death row, Zeigler had grown old and frail. The former furniture store in Winter Garden now hosts a thrift shop. But inside an Orange County courthouse evidence vault, bloody clothes and guns gathered at the crime scene remain carefully preserved in paper bags. And questions about Zeigler’s guilt linger.

His lawyers want all the evidence tested for DNA. But the state hasn’t budged.

“I began thinking about what Zeigler’s story was about,” Anton said. “He couldn’t get DNA. Why? I started looking at other inmates who had asked for DNA and what was happening in their cases. I looked at the law, what it required and why he kept falling through the cracks. And I began to see a pattern.”

Anton’s job as an enterprise reporter is to take deep dives. At the Tampa Bay Times, we place tremendous value on this type of reporting. We aspire to do more.

It takes time, patience and innate skill. We think it’s well worth the effort.

“Blood and Truth” explores the state’s unwillingness to further test DNA evidence in Zeigler’s case and that of other death row inmates. As modern science has fine-tuned forensic work, Anton’s reporting tells us that the state has thwarted not just Zeigler but more than 20 death row inmates from accessing DNA tests. Diez and Anton also are producing a podcast that will air later this year.

In reporting the series, the Times looked closely at the DNA appeals of every death row inmate in Florida.

“No one had ever done that,” said Maria Carrillo, our deputy editor for enterprise, who supervises Anton. “It involved checking about 500 cases, one at a time. That helped us zero in on older inmates who were being denied, even though the state had passed a law to let them get testing.”

The series raises issues about the way Zeigler was prosecuted and questions that were never pursued.

“We don’t know whether Tommy Zeigler committed this crime,” Carrillo noted. “He may be where he deserves to be. But we do know that questions swirl around this case more than four decades later.”

The blood inside that Orange County evidence vault could hold the answers.

Mark Katches is executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at [email protected] or 727-893-8441. Follow @markkatches.

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