Before Florida executes 75-year-old Tommy Zeigler, State Attorney Monique Worrell wants to conduct DNA testing to make sure the state is killing a guilty man.
Attorney General Ashley Moody is trying to thwart that.
Yes, Florida’s top prosecutor is trying to obstruct a local prosecutor’s attempt to collect more evidence.
That’s disturbing, particularly for a state that has wrongly sentenced more people to die than any other state in America.
At least 30 times, Florida judges or juries have ordered executions only to later learn they did so in error.
In Zeigler’s case, the jury actually wanted him to live. Jurors voted for life in prison. (And one juror didn’t even want to convict him at all until after the judge ordered the bailiff to give her a Valium.) But a judge overruled the jury’s life sentence and ordered Zeigler’s execution.
So, for the past 45 years, taxpayers have spent far more money trying to kill Zeigler than they ever would have locking him up for life.
The case was a grisly one on Christmas Eve of 1975, when authorities said Zeigler killed his wife, her parents and one other person at his furniture store in Winter Garden. Zeigler, who was also shot that night, claimed they were all victims of a robbery gone bad.
For more than four decades, questions have persisted. And finally, the prosecutor joined with Zeigler’s pro-bono defense team to seek answers through DNA technology that wasn’t available 40 years ago.
But Moody is trying to intervene, which astounded Zeigler’s defense attorney, former U.S. Navy JAG officer Terry Hadley of Winter Park.
“It is beyond my ability to comprehend why the attorney general would try to stop testing that could potentially prove Zeigler innocent when the same has been agreed to by the state attorney’s office,” Hadley said. “We’re not asking for a free ticket, just the chance to test at our expense the evidence to establish guilt or innocence once and for all.”
I have trouble comprehending that, too. I know some people are certain Zeigler’s guilty. Others are certain he’s innocent. The only thing I’m certain about is that the state should have every possible piece of evidence before taking a man’s life.
In a statement Wednesday, Moody spokeswoman Kylie Mason said the office objected, in part, because Worrell didn’t first confer with her office. She also said any additional DNA testing should be conducted by a state lab, rather than a private certified one that Zeigler’s team offered to pay for.
Great. Both those things are easy fixes. So Moody, now duly notified, can request the state lab perform the test and get everyone the answers they seek. Right?
There’s a solid case for stopping executions altogether:
The death penalty doesn’t deter murder. (States with capital punishment have similar, and in some cases higher, murder rates.)
It isn’t applied evenly. (Men are sentenced to death more than women. The poor more than the rich. People of color more than whites. Southerners more than Northerners.)
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And taxpayers often spend far more money trying to kill people than keeping them alive.
But the single best argument against the death penalty is that judges and juries sometimes get it wrong.
More than 170 people have been sentenced to death in this country only to later have their convictions overturned, thanks to revelations of everything from lying witnesses and fabricated evidence to sloppy police work and new DNA.
It takes an incredible suspension of logic to think that we catch every error.
That is why most states have stopped executing people. Yes, most. While executions are still legal in just over half of the states, almost all have stopped carrying them out. Last year, only five states executed anyone.
And even if you still believe in a-death-for-a-death brand of justice, I’m not sure how you can object to doing everything possible to make sure you’re killing the right person.
Zeigler’s case has always been a messy. Authorities say he wanted to kill his wife for insurance money and that he shot himself as a cover story. They stress that a witness claimed Zeigler also tried to kill him earlier the same day.
Zeigler says he was attacked by someone else, that he loved his wife, that authorities never looked for the real culprit, and that the judge played dirty pool handling the case.
The story and questions about Zeigler’s guilt have been the focus of a book, movie and multiple documentaries. Former Orlando Sentinel columnist Charley Reese — a man who liked the death penalty so much he wanted to bring back public hangings — studied Zeigler’s case and declared it proof that “the wheels of justice can crush innocents.”
© 2021 Orlando Sentinel. Visit orlandosentinel.com. Reach Scott Maxweel at firstname.lastname@example.org Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.