Case of the Month: the Zeigler wrongful conviction

Zeigler grid/AdS

Zeigler grid/AdS

Case of the Month: the Zeigler wrongful conviction has been part of my life since 1993 when I started working for Amnesty International in Switzerland.

I am appalled that the injustice endures.

In December 1975, a quadruple murder took place in the Zeigler Furniture Store in Wintergarden, Florida.

The victims were Charles Mays, Virginia and Perry Edwards (Zeigler’s parents-in-law), and Eunice Edwards-Zeigler (Zeigler’s wife).

This case is discussed in detail on my blog. All those posts can be found here.

I just wish to show you a listing of all the misconduct in this case that violated Zeigler’s right to due process.

A: The prosecution contended that only one man killed these four victims. After investigating the crime scene police found that 28 shots were fired with eight revolvers. However, no gunshot residue was found on Zeigler’s pants.

B: Three people were shot by a killer who did not care whether they left traces behind, whereas around one dead body (Mays) someone partially cleaned up. If one person was responsible for all four killings, why would that person bother to clean up around one dead body but not around the other three?

C: The prosecution charged Zeigler with murdering Mays. Zeigler never denied that he shot twice at the person who attacked him that night but did he kill Mays? During the Mays autopsy, Dr. Ruiz concluded that Mays had indeed been shot twice: once in the back and once in the front abdomen. One wound was superficial. The other bullet had passed through his liver. But Ruiz found only about 200 cc of blood in the peritoneum. This meant that neither wound had been fatal. Zeigler shot him but his shots didn’t kill Mays.

D: The prosecution’s theory was that Eunice’s body remained undisturbed after she was shot. The position of her left hand in her left coat pocket was the sole basis for that theory.  We now know that Eunice’s hand was placed in her left pocket to hide that her two diamond rings were stolen. The rings that she always wore were never found at the crime scene or at the Zeigler house. However, decades later these rings showed up in the belonging of Eunice’s brother and his family. How did they get those rings?

E: The prosecution never explained the bloody footprints found near Eunice’s body. They did not belong to any of the other victims.  Tom Delaney, the FBI specialist who examined the footprints, testified they could not have been left by Zeigler’s shoes.

F: The prosecution showed the jury during trial a close-up photograph of Charlie Mays with a human tooth lying on the sleeve of his dark sweatshirt. None of the other victims had lost a tooth. It did not belong to Zeigler either.

G: The prosecution never explained who manipulated Mays’ dead body. This manipulation was noted by police officers in their reports. Between the times that the body was found, initially photographed, and the time that the crime scene photographs were shown in court, everything changed. Mays’ right arm was moved, the crank (most likely the murder weapon), was placed away from him, the tooth disappeared, Mays’ fly was opened, and his pants were pulled down. Why?

The prosecution withheld various crucial pieces of evidence that all undermined their theory.

IChief Thompson’s police report as first officer at the scene was not given to the defense before trial or during discovery. In 1987, after Florida passed its Public Records Act, Zeigler’s appellate attorneys were granted access to the state attorney’s files of the case. That is when the Thompson report was discovered. In that report the Chief wrote that blood around Zeigler’s gunshot wound was dry and dark. But on the stand, he lied and claimed it was fresh. Fresh fitted the state’s theory. Dry did not.

II: The prosecution contended that the shootings took place between 7:00-8:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1975. Four witnesses, whose testimony the state suppressed and hid from the defense for more than a decade, said that the shootings took place after 9:00 p.m. This is the Jellison Tape.

In April of 1987, when Zeigler’s lawyers made a Florida Public Records Act request for the files of the State Attorney in Orlando, they also discovered (aside from Chief Thompson’s report) a tape-recorded telephone interview with John Jellison. The interview had been conducted on April 30, 1976, by a state investigator named Mr. Jack Bachman. The tape had been hidden by the State Attorney’s Office, which failed to disclose it before the trial and even in answering requests for disclosure in conjunction with Zeigler’s appeals.

Zeigler’s attorneys raised the issue that the Jellison tape contradicts the State’s version of the events, as well as that the State hid the tape from, (1) the trial court, (2) from discovery during the trial, and (3) from all the appeals. The Court of Appeals held that this issue should have been raised before January 1, 1987, which was the time period for Zeigler’s state claims for relief. Zeigler’s lawyers pointed out that the State had kept the tape hidden until April of 1987. The Court denied relief anyway, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that denial.

III: On Dec 29, 1975, Detective Frye from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office wrote in his arrest report that he interviewed Mr. Robert Foster. On the stand he claimed that name was a typo despite the fact that indeed, Mr. Robert Foster does exist.  If the defense had evidence that Robert Foster did exist, they could have undermined the credibility of one of the state’s own witnesses. The state has an obligation under Brady v. Maryland to disclose any favorable evidence even if that meant it could impeach their own witnesses and this would have impeached the testimony of Detective Frye.

Furthermore we have this:

Police violated basic rules of procedure by entering a dark crime scene and disturbing evidence by smoking on the scene before evidence was collected. They tripped furniture, broke vases, wore muddy boots, disturbed blood patterns, and displaced evidence by moving discarded bullets and cartridges, and made extra foot prints.

There was juror misconduct during deliberations: Jurors Dollinger and Brickle spoke about intimidation from fellow jurors who tried to change Mrs. Brickle’s mind. Brickle was ultimately the sole holdout who believed that Zeigler was innocent. They needed a unanimous verdict. Both Dollinger and Brickle stated that when Brickle tried to make a point, another juror would step behind her seat, put one of the revolvers from the evidence table to her head, and pull the trigger. Dollinger confirmed that other jurors shouted at Brickle when she tried to discuss the case. The defense moved for a mistrial. Back in Judge Paul’s chambers, they put it on the record but Paul denied the motion for a mistrial.

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In the past (almost) 40 years, many appeals were filed by the defense to point out prosecutorial misconduct, police lying on the stand, withheld evidence, and forensic evidence pointing to other explanations than what the state offered when it charged William Thomas Zeigler with quadruple murder that sent him to death row..

Each time the consequences of the misconduct were dismissed as either procedurally barred or that the complaint was filed too late or that on its own this one single complaint would not have changed the opinion of the jury.

However, if the jury in 1976 had been shown all the evidence at once, it is unbelievable that it would not have created reasonable doubt.

It is time that a judge looks at this case and all the misconduct in its entirety.

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In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases or wrongful convictions. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, more information can be found online and in newspaper archives. This case has been discussed extensively on my blog however, it needs every exposure it can get.

If you have any thoughts about this case I encourage you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc.

For more information about the Zeigler case see:

Fatal Flaw” by Phillip Finch

Death on Hold

A Question of Innocence on Investigation Discovery

or contact a member of his defense team:

John Houston Pope 

Dennis Tracey III 

Vernon Davids 

Ralph V. Hadley