ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A Florida prosecutor has agreed to allow DNA testing on evidence that helped convict a man for the 1975 murders of his wife, in-laws and an acquaintance at the family’s furniture store and landed him on death row.
Monique H. Worrell, who was elected state attorney for the Orlando area in November, has agreed to allow testing that Tommy Zeigler and his many supporters believe will show he is innocent of gunning down the four on Christmas Eve. Previous prosecutors have contended Zeigler staged the massacre as a robbery to collect his wife’s life insurance policy.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that Worrell’s office recently agreed to give all evidence in the case to Zeigler’s attorneys for testing at a lab certified by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. The agreement will now go before a judge, but is expected to be approved.
In particular, Zeigler’s attorney wants to test his clothing to see if it has the victims’ blood on it and the fingernail clippings of his father-in-law, who fought his killer before being shot. A previous test in 2001 failed to detect any DNA from the victims on four small patches of his clothing, but prosecutors blocked attempts to do a full test, saying other evidence ties Zeigler to the murders.
“I am hoping and praying that the test results come back with enough evidence to force the court to grant me a new trial!” Zeigler wrote in a Thursday email to the Times.
Worrell reviewed the case when she lead the office’s conviction integrity unit and concluded Zeigler had not received a fair trial.
“Can the state of Florida legally decline to support additional DNA testing? Absolutely,” Worrell wrote in a 2019 memo to her predecessor. “Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing? Absolutely not.”
Her predecessor rejected her recommendation, but now the final decision was hers.
The killings happened at W.T. Zeigler Furniture in Winter Garden. Prosecutors contended at Zeigler’s 1976 trial that he lured his wife, 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. They had all been shot. They said Zeigler then shot himself in the stomach to make it appear that he, too, was a victim. They say he staged the robbery so he could collect on a $500,000 life insurance policy he took out on his wife just months before.
Zeigler said then and now that he went to the store to make 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.
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 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, but the judge — in an exceedingly rare move in Florida — overruled the panel and sentenced him to death.
Zeigler has twice been scheduled to die, but the execution was stopped — once with less than a day to spare.
“The entire process has not been handled as it should have been,” David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s attorneys, told the Times earlier this year. “And if you don’t have a criminal justice system that works for Tommy Zeigler, you don’t have one that works for me or you, either.”