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Blood and truth:The lingering case of Tommy Zeigler

December 9, 2018

Dale Recinella steeled himself as he entered Florida’s death row and the rank smell of men who lived year-round with no air conditioning. The electronic door grinded as it closed behind him.

The Catholic chaplain’s Rockports squeaked on the concrete corridor as he walked from cell to cell, on that day in 1999.

Recinella had been a Wall Street finance lawyer before deciding the work wasn’t meaningful enough. He now served as a voluntary chaplain to hundreds on death row and another 1,500 in solitary confinement. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but it had given him peace.

On the Row, angry men sometimes screamed at him, said he knew nothing about their worlds. Others barely looked up. Then there was William “Tommy” Zeigler.

Recinella felt at ease around Zeigler, who always came to the gate of his cell to talk. Zeigler called himself a “foot-washing Baptist.” He seemed gentle and cheerful. Unlike most, he always asked about Recinella’s life.

“What are you doing here?” Recinella asked Zeigler that day, about six months after he had started coming to death row. “You stick out like a sore thumb.”

Up until that point, Zeigler hadn’t brought up his case, and Recinella hadn’t asked.

“You know I’m innocent, right?” Zeigler responded.

Recinella couldn’t imagine anyone on death row being innocent, not with as many appeals as they get to file. How was that even possible?

Zeigler said his case had been explored in a 1992 book, Fatal Flaw: A True Story of Malice and Murder in a Small Southern Town.

The following week, Recinella bought it and started reading. It was a complex case, made all the more complicated by the multitude of characters who found themselves in close proximity to Zeigler’s furniture store in the central Florida citrus town of Winter Garden on Christmas Eve 1975. Four people had been murdered: Zeigler’s wife, his in-laws and a longtime customer.

Author Phillip Finch concluded that Zeigler could not have killed his family.

A few months later, Recinella visited the Midtown Manhattan law offices of Zeigler’s lawyers and spent several days looking through thousands of pages of documents stored floor to ceiling. The State Attorney’s Office had failed to turn over to defense lawyers some police reports and witness statements that supported Zeigler’s version of the story. Recinella observed a “purposefulness to the mistake, not by everyone but by some.”

As a chaplain, Recinella was forbidden from advocating for inmates. His job was to read them scripture and pray, listen and give communion. If they asked for him before they were to be executed, he went. He could lose his privileges at death row if he was too outspoken on someone’s behalf. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Zeigler. If the man was innocent, that meant he’d lost everything — his wife and in-laws, his home and his business, his name and his freedom.

That would mean he, too, was a victim.

Now Florida death row inmate has begged the courts for DNA testing more than Tommy Zeigler.

His lawyers have asked six times.

After his second request in 2001, Zeigler obtained limited tests, which appeared to support his story that he was a victim of a robbery at his furniture store.

But he has been denied more advanced testing of the blood-stained clothes, fingernail scrapings and guns.

Zeigler, now 73, has been awaiting execution for 42 years. He was convicted with the help of blood evidence that was, at the time, more theory than science and has been unable to get forensic testing that’s now available in murder cases.

Florida has actually deprived a total of 19 men from accessing modern science. Another nine, including Zeigler, were allowed DNA tests when the technology was in early development but were later prevented from conducting more tests or advanced analysis.

Their appeals for post-conviction DNA tests have been rejected 7o times, or almost three out of every four requests, according to a Tampa Bay Times review of more than 500 death row cases since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated in Florida.

Eight of the men were executed without ever obtaining the tests.

Almost 70 percent were convicted in the 1970s or ’80s, when DNA testing didn’t exist or was at its origins.

Nine were convicted partially with “microscopic hair comparison,” a method employed by the FBI for decades that has been discredited. The evidence in 12 cases has been lost or destroyed.

Three of the men, including Zeigler, who were convicted in front of the same judge in Orange County, have spent more than 40 years on death row.

Many of the men requesting tests are likely guilty and hoping only to run the clock on their death sentences.

But the state Legislature wanted to eliminate the possibility that even one innocent man could be executed.

In 2001, it passed a statute to provide a way for inmates to obtain DNA testing in all cases. Almost 20 years later though, some prosecutors routinely fight DNA requests, especially in high-profile death row cases, and the courts often fail to intervene.

Court rules dictating procedure can supercede the state DNA law. And judges have wide discretion.

In most states, including Florida, judges often allow DNA analysis that can prove innocence, such as a test of a rape kit, where the perpetrator can be positively identified.

Judges aren’t as likely to allow for the testing if they aren’t convinced it will exonerate. And they rely on evidence from the original trial to reach that conclusion.

“There’s a failure by courts and prosecutors to understand that DNA testing is different,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. It can transform, he said, the meaning of the other evidence.

In some cases, judges are rejecting advancements like touch DNA, which can reveal whether someone participated in the crime.

Those who believe Zeigler guilty say there is too much other evidence that points to him as the killer. But his supporters have spent years poking holes in the case.

What’s clear is that a rookie detective, fresh out of a week-long blood-spatter school, decided Zeigler was guilty within hours. Police and prosecutors failed to turn over reports and witness statements that might have swayed Zeigler’s divided jury. The trial judge called a distraught juror’s doctor, who sent over Valium during deliberations — and sentenced Zeigler to death after the jury gave him life.

Questions have been raised about the primary witnesses who testified against Zeigler and about the 1970s interpretation of the evidence. His lawyers say he would never be convicted today with such a flimsy case.

Could he be innocent?

Scientists say there is a way to know, so that the state with the most exonerations in the country doesn’t execute the wrong man.

Florida refuses.

Robert Eagan flipped through a scrapbook one day last March, looking back at his storied career weeding out crime and corruption across Florida.

The former Orange County State Attorney won most of his murder cases and indicted dozens of cops for bribery and extortion. He wore seersucker suits, and his patient personality drew comparisons to Atticus Finch.

“I was a very popular man with every governor,” the 92-year-old said, chuckling in the living room of his Maitland home.

But Zeigler’s case looms over Eagan’s legacy. At least seven retired police officers, a retired Orlando Sentinel editor and Bianca Jagger have raised questions about Zeigler’s guilt. More than 2,300 people have signed a petition to the governor for DNA tests of the evidence. Analyzing the blood, they argue, could raise more doubt about the prosecution’s theories, opening the door to a new trial. Or it would provide scientific certainty that Zeigler killed four people.

Zeigler’s lawyers have offered to pay for the DNA tests, and experts say modern technology is likely to produce results.

But Eagan is glad the courts have denied the requests.

“The fact that all this stuff is going on and on and on, you say to yourself, where does it end?” he said. “Finally, put an end to it.”

He feels that the victims’ families shouldn’t be dragged, again and again, through their loved ones’ deaths.

Zeigler’s execution, he said, is long overdue.

He remains convinced he got the right man.

No doubt in his mind.

Body chains clinked in the hallway before Tommy Zeigler appeared in a visiting room, a guard by his side. He looked skeletal, his pale, freckled skin stretched tight over a 6-foot-2 frame. Earlier this year, he caught the flu, and his weight dropped below 143 pounds.

His knees hurt with arthritis, but the visitor’s room felt good on a humid day in July compared with his second-floor cell, where the only air came from vents and a 9-inch fan and temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees.

“It’s about 15 degrees cooler here than it is up there,” he said.

Gerald Ford was president and gas was 59 cents a gallon when Zeigler — then 30 — arrived in July 1976.

Only one of the 346 others has been here longer and only by three months.

The men on death row are a blur of society’s ills and humanity’s vices, of rape and cruelty and jealousy and poverty and mental illness. They murdered for money, for betrayal, for “intellectual pleasure,” for hire.

They are divided between Union Correctional Institution and Florida State Prison, adjacent facilities nine miles outside Starke in north Florida. Their numbers are shrinking because of challenges to the death penalty. About 60 percent are white, 37 percent are black. Fifty-eight have lived there 30 years or more.

Three times a week, they get 10-minute showers. Twice a week, they get several hours in the prison yard, and there is a weekly visit with family or friends. They are brought three meals a day, the first at 5 a.m., and eat with a spork.

Zeigler’s cell is in a row of 14. None of the men can see each other. If he wanted to talk to the guy a few cells down, he’d go up to the cell bars and yell out to him. Everyone would quiet down and let them talk. Sometimes, the conversations go on for hours, with others chiming in. They talk about sports or politics or death. They are a noisy bunch, and the chatter echoes off the steel and concrete, along with the clanking of heavy gates, the whirring of metal doors.

Zeigler used to play chess with the man in the next cell, Ted Bundy. Since they couldn’t see each other, they called out moves. Bundy was executed nearly 30 years ago, and Zeigler no longer plays. “I got too old and too tired,” he said.

He used to make sweaters and scarves, until the guards, who call him “Ziggy,” took away his plastic knitting needles.

He used to run in his cell, back and forth, for hours, to get exercise. For him, it’s two paces each way. But he messed up his knees, so now he does 1,000 sit-ups on even days, and 500 pushups and 400 back-arm pushups on the odd days. It takes him about three hours. If he didn’t, he said, he’d “go to seed.”

He takes Sundays off.

The rest of the time, he reads, writes letters, watches news, golf or football on his 13-inch TV and stares at the empty walls.

He has dodged death twice.

Gov. Bob Graham signed his first death warrant in 1982. Zeigler promised to quit smoking Kents if he avoided the second warrant, issued in 1986. He said he hasn’t smoked since.

Ninety-four men and two women have been executed in Florida since the death penalty’s revival. Zeigler has been around for each of them. He sat in the next cell over when John Spenkelink left for the electric chair in 1979.

Spenkelink had killed a fellow hitchhiker in Tallahassee six years earlier.

“It smelled like burnt bacon,” Zeigler said.

Zeigler has spent 24 years fighting to get all of the evidence against him tested for DNA.

“The courts,” he said, “don’t want to admit they made a mistake.”

He clings to hope.

“I was raised that if you tell the truth, the truth’s gonna find you out,” he said. “And I can’t believe that God has put me through this . and not gonna straighten it out. I can’t believe that.”

The evidence is stored in Orlando. It is preserved in paper bags, in a humidity-controlled vault, with answers to a crime that rattled a small town on Christmas Eve 1975.

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