The lingering case of Tommy Zeigler

Blood and truth: the lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing

Tampa Bay

Blood and truth: the lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing. The Tampa Bay is publishing a new six-series about the case of William Thomas Zeigler. As my readers know, I have been involved in this case since the 90s. There are so many posts about this case on my blog that Zeigler has his own category, you can find it here.

The Case

For those new to the case: in December 1975, a quadruple murder took place in the Zeigler Furniture Store in Winter Garden, Florida. The victims were Charles Mays, Virginia and Perry Edwards, and their daughter Eunice Edwards-Zeigler. The fifth victim, William Thomas Zeigler, became the sole suspect because he survived. The case is filled with police misconduct (lying on the stand), prosecutorial misconduct (withheld evidence), and forensic testing disproving the charges.

The latest appeals

To simplify the latest in the appeals process:

  • the evidentiary hearing for touch DNA testing was held on March 31, 2016. Judge Whitehead denied the request on July 18, 2016.
  • On November 23, 2016, an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court of Florida. On April 21, 2017 the Florida Supreme Court denied the touch DNA request.
  • On May 8, 2017 a motion for a rehearing with the US Supreme Court was filed. It was denied November 13, 2017.
The authors
  1. Leonora Lapeter Anton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the Tampa Bay Times’ enterprise team. She grew up in Connecticut and Greece and studied journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has worked for the Okeechobee News in Okeechobee, the Island Packet on Hilton Head Island, S.C., the Tallahassee Democrat in Tallahassee and the Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga. She joined the Times in 2000.
  2. Cherie Diez, a Tampa native, third generation, with family roots going back to Sicily and Spain. She’s been a photographer at the Times since graduating from the University of South Florida, immersing herself in numerous award-winning documentary projects and covering social issues including child welfare, life in New York City after 9/11 and a year in the life of an Alzheimer’s support group. As a narrative photojournalist and video producer, she uses the camera to capture fleeting moments that reveal so much about a life and our world.

Blood and truth: the lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing articles 1 2 and 3The six-parts are coming out this week, see photographs.

Violating Zeigler’s right to due process

To give you a quick overview, here is the short list of misconduct that violated Zeigler’s right to due process.

A: The prosecution said only one man killed the 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.

B: Three people were shot by a killer who did not care whether they left traces behind. However, around one dead body (Mays) someone partially cleaned up the floor. 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 a person who attacked him that night but did he kill that person and was that person Mays? During Mays’ autopsy, Dr. Ruiz concluded 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. So the man Zeigler shot was most likely Mays but he 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 tucked into 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. These rings that she always wore were never found at the crime scene or, at the Zeigler home. However, decades later these rings showed up in the possession 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 a close-up photograph of Charlie Mays’ dead body 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. Why was this not a red flag? Who else was in that store that night?

G: The prosecution never explained who manipulated Mays’ dead body. This manipulation was noted by police 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 had changed. Mays’ right arm was moved, the crank (most likely the murder weapon) was placed away from him, the tooth had disappeared, Mays’ fly was opened, and his pants were pulled down. Why? Who doctored the crime scene photographs?

Blood and truth: the lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing articles 4 5 and 6The 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 said that shootings took place between 7:00-8:00 pm 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 pm. This is the Jellison Tape. Between 7-8pm fitted the state’s theory. After 9pm did not.

III: On Dec 29, 1975, Detective Frye from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office wrote in his arrest report that he interviewed a 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. That is the law. 

As if this isn’t enough we also have:

A: 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.

B: 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 Zeigler was innocent. The jury verdict had to be unanimous. Both Dollinger and Brickle said when Brickle tried to make a point, another juror would stand 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 Judge Paul denied the motion for a mistrial.

Conclusion

In the past decades, 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, 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 truly independent judge looks at this case, at all the evidence, and at all the misconduct in its entirety. If this interests you, follow the Tampa Bay’s series.