Published November 20, 2014
In 35 years on Florida's death row, Tommy Zeigler's cries of innocence have swayed a former newspaper editor, the daughter of a police chief who helped put him behind bars and an assortment of others who have come to believe that he didn't commit one of the state's most notorious mass slayings of the 1970s.
A reporter wrote a book about him called "Fatal Flaw," and national TV programs — including "Unsolved Mysteries" — turned a skeptical eye on the evidence. His many supporters now range from a former sheriff's deputy who helped investigate the slayings to celebrity civil rights activist Bianca Jagger. A private investigator believes in the 66-year-old Zeigler's innocence so strongly that she picked up his case last year and has worked on it almost full time for free.
On April 11, Zeigler's longtime lawyers tried again to get the appeals courts to re-examine his case. A new motion claims evidence turned up recently by the investigator pokes more holes in the case against Zeigler and creates enough new reasonable doubt to tip the scales in favor of a new trial. The document claims prosecutors lied and withheld information from Zeigler's lawyers — including the existence of a key witness.
Prosecutors then and now have portrayed Zeigler as a calculating monster who slaughtered his wife, her parents and another man in the family furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975 to collect insurance money.
Of Florida's 399 condemned prisoners, only 11 have been on death row longer than Zeigler. Having already survived two death warrants, he can't help but wonder how soon his time will come now that the state's death chamber is humming again. Four men have been executed in the past seven months under Gov. Rick Scott — the latest on April 12. Two of them had been there three decades or more. Zeigler knew them well; they were as close to friends as anyone gets in "P-Dorm" at Union Correctional Institution.
"When I left on July 16, 1976, and came to death row, my lawyers told me not to bother to unpack, they'd have me out in six months," Zeigler said in an interview at the prison recently. "It's been a long six months."
From the beginning, it wasn't just his defense team that doubted William Thomas Zeigler Jr. was capable of committing the awful crimes.
At 30 he had more than a million dollars in assets thanks to his family's furniture store, and was a well-liked and prominent figure in the small town of Winter Garden, just west of Orlando. He and his wife Eunice lived in a nice house not far from the store, doted on their many Persian cats and seemed to get along just fine. He'd never been arrested.
That's why it is still so hard for many to believe that he was responsible for the bloody, confusing scene at the W.T. Zeigler Furniture store on Dec. 24, 1975. Prosecutors say it happened like this: Zeigler lured Eunice to the store to kill her, and her parents, Perry and Virginia Edwards, got in the way. A fruit picker Zeigler knew named Charlie Mays was killed, too. Then Zeigler shot himself in the stomach to make it appear as if they'd been the victims of a robbery. He staged it all so he could collect on a $500,000 life insurance policy he took out on his wife just months before. All the victims were shot.
Neither side disputes that Zeigler, at 9:20 that night, called the house of a municipal judge who was hosting a Christmas party with many prominent people in attendance and reported that he'd been shot at the store.
The story Zeigler told that night is the same story he tells today. He says he went to the store to do some last minute Christmas deliveries. Unbeknownst to him, his wife and in-laws, who had come to look at a recliner that was to be her father's Christmas present, were already dead in various places in the store when he arrived. After finding the lights shut off at the breaker box, he was hit over the head and beaten by two men. He lost his glasses but managed to find and fire one of the guns he kept in the store. He believes Mays — who had cash from the store stuffed in his pocket — was one of the attackers and was killed in the gunfight. Zeigler says that when he came to after being knocked out, he was the only one left alive in the store. Whoever else attacked him had fled.
Zeigler had a reputation in town for sticking up for minorities and migrants who worked picking fruit in the area. He and others believe he was attacked and then framed in a law-enforcement conspiracy because he was about to uncover corruption involving high-ranking local officials, including a loansharking operation that preyed on the migrant workers.
Zeigler was found guilty on July 2, 1976, amid allegations of juror misconduct. One of the jurors, now dead, said in media interviews after the trial that she believed Zeigler was innocent and that she was harassed and coerced into voting guilty by other jurors who wanted to finish up in time for the nation's Bicentennial celebration two days later. The jury then voted to recommend a life sentence for Zeigler, but the judge — in an exceedingly rare move in Florida — overruled the panel and sentenced him to death.
Zeigler's appeals were enough to get stays of execution twice after governors signed death warrants. He once came to within a half day of execution. A second sentencing hearing ordered by an appeals court two decades ago resulted in another death sentence. More recent appeals have fallen on deaf judicial ears.
Even so, Zeigler has picked up a growing wave of support through the years. One of his early advocates was David Burgin, who was hired as the Orlando Sentinel's editor in 1981. Burgin said the more he looked into the case and studied court transcripts, the more he believed his newspaper had treated Zeigler unfairly. He continued to advocate for Zeigler as he moved on to other newspaper jobs through the years, but now is retired and in ill health.
In 2003 he wrote a letter to then-Gov. Jeb Bush calling attention to Zeigler's case and publicly apologizing for the newspaper's failure to question prosecutors' version of events and being biased against Zeigler from the beginning. The newspaper, Burgin wrote, "spent no time trying to cover the case with a hard eye on the defendant's story." He said he's convinced the case against Zeigler was contrived and that he was framed.
"It's a collection of lies and false assumptions," the 73-year-old Burgin said in a telephone interview recently. "His whole life is gone, and he's still getting screwed. It's just so damn unfair that it's pathetic."
Lynn-Marie Carty, the St. Petersburg-based investigator, heard about Zeigler's case last year and was moved to get involved. She said she found a witness whose existence she claims was acknowledged then denied by prosecutors at the time, as well as an attempted robbery at a gas station the same night across the street from the furniture store. Zeigler's lawyers claim prosecutors knew this information but withheld it at trial.
Carty said the witness didn't acknowledge anything beyond that he was in the same county at the time. An investigator had testified at trial that the witness' name was a typographical error in a report. It's not clear what the witness may have said had he ever testified, but they say proof that he exists supports their contention of perjury.
The daughter of the former police chief of the adjacent town of Oakland now says she believes Zeigler is innocent and may have been framed by her father and others. Robert Thompson was among the first officers on the scene the night of the slayings and drove Zeigler to the hospital.
Christine Cooper said her father died in 1999 "taking a lot of secrets with him."
Leigh McEachern, a former Orange County chief deputy, said that there was evidence the sheriff's office didn't process at the time because investigators assumed Zeigler was guilty. He said that enough new evidence has surfaced since then that he now believes Zeigler to be innocent.
Zeigler is heartened by the new attempts to prove his innocence, but at the same time he's gotten used to new supporters enthusiastically joining the effort only to go on their way when they find they can't get anything done for him.
"Every year," he said in the interview last month, "another piece of this puzzle comes together."
Zeigler's attorneys are now asking a judge to grant him a new trial based on a number of claims, including that prosecutors used false and misleading testimony and concealed evidence, and that the new evidence would likely produce his acquittal.
"Newly discovered evidence establishes that the State concealed material information from the defense in this case — a case based on circumstantial evidence and involved an initially deadlocked jury," said the motion, filed in state circuit court last week.
State attorney's office spokeswoman Danielle Tavernier declined to comment on the case except to say that prosecutors will fight the new motion in court.
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