Editorial: Let DNA testing remove doubt in death row cases

Inmate William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler photographed on Florida's Death Row in Union Correctional Institution, Raiford, Fla. on June 21, 2018.
Inmate William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler photographed on Florida's Death Row in Union Correctional Institution, Raiford, Fla. on June 21, 2018.
Published Nov. 30, 2018

From his tiny cell on death row, Tommy Zeigler has steadfastly maintained his innocence for 42 years while begging for DNA testing that was not available when he stood trial in 1976 for four murders. Like many condemned men in Florida, Zeigler has been refused at nearly every turn despite a state law intended to make the technology more accessible. With 28 Death Row exonerations — the most in the country — Florida should instead be clearing the way for inmates like Zeigler to obtain DNA testing that could definitively prove their guilt or innocence and prevent a wrongful execution. Whatever the outcome, justice would be served.

In a six-part series titled "Blood and Truth," the Tampa Bay Times' Leonora LaPeter Anton chronicled Zeigler's case, from Christmas Eve 1975 when his wife, Eunice, her parents and another man were found shot to death in the Zeigler family's furniture store in Winter Garden. Zeigler, who also was shot, told investigators he'd been struck in the head as he entered the store and then struggled with multiple attackers as guns fired in what he believed was a robbery. But it was Zeigler, then 30, who ended up being arrested in an investigation that now appears flawed from the start.

Perhaps most startling: The night of the murders, a man showed up at the Winter Garden Police Department with one of the murder weapons, but detectives did not test his hands for gunshot residue. Instead they accepted his convoluted story and proceeded to rely on other flimsy leads as they built their case against Zeigler.

Prosecutors won a conviction just a few months later in a trial that would never go down the same way today. The judge insisted it begin even though Zeigler's lawyer needed more time because he was still awaiting crime lab results and learning about new witnesses, Anton wrote. Jurors talked individually with each other about the case, and one consulted her pastor about it. Juries are strictly forbidden to discuss cases with anyone until the end of the trial when they retreat to the jury room as a group to consider their verdict. Over two days of deliberations, one juror, crumbling from the pressure of the trial, was given a Valium at the judge's request. In the jury room, as she continued questioning how Zeigler could have shot the victims, another juror picked up an unloaded gun from evidence, pointed it at the back of her head and pulled the trigger. After finding Zeigler guilty, the jury recommended life in prison but the judge slapped him with a death sentence. These are grave errors that paint a clear picture of an unfair trial.

And it's plenty to justify allowing Zeigler to obtain full DNA testing of the evidence. (The one time courts granted him limited testing, the results supported his version of events.) His attorneys want to examine fingernail clippings and blood left on clothes — both Zeigler's and the victims' — and other pieces of evidence, anticipating they could show, for example, whether Zeigler had any of the victims' DNA on him. Prosecutors suggested Zeigler held Perry Edwards Sr., his father-in-law, in a headlock and clubbed him with a metal crank, then shot him at close range. Eunice Zeigler, too, had been shot in the back of the head at close range. Their blood would likely be on the killer's clothes. While those results would not necessarily prove Zeigler innocent, they would undermine the case against him enough to warrant a new trial.

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But institutional resistance has stymied Zeigler's appeals and requests for full DNA testing. It's extraordinarily difficult to overcome a guilty verdict in Florida — indeed, if inmates had unlimited avenues to challenge their convictions, the system would collapse. But death row cases are different, and modern DNA testing can shed new light on decades-old crimes. Almost 70 percent of Florida's death row cases in which testing has been denied date to the 1970s or '80s, before current tests were developed. A law passed in 2001 was supposed to clear these obstacles and allow those sentenced to death to obtain the testing. But even now, Anton found, requests are regularly denied. One advocate for death row inmates said it's no easier now to obtain DNA testing than before the law, a blatant injustice with life or death consequences.

Considering Florida's track record leading the nation in death row exonerations, we should be working to become the leader in post-conviction DNA testing. Judges and prosecutors should show more fidelity to the law meant to enable testing. That statute could be strengthened to ensure long-serving inmates can obtain it, and there should be no ban on private DNA testing. The state should create a commission on wrongful convictions, which the American Bar Association recommended as far back as 2006.

So far, eight people in Florida have gone to their deaths having asked for and been denied DNA testing. Tommy Zeigler should not join that list.