Death row inmate Tommy Zeigler's hearing set for Dec. 21
Death row prisoner William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler Jr. could forget about giving thanks this holiday season, but he won't.
This year, Zeigler, a death row inmate since 1976, could give thanks for being welcomed into the Catholic faith this past summer.
The 59-year-old could also give thanks for an electric fan he is now able to use within his 80-square-foot cell at Florida State Prison in Starke.
But he hopes to give thanks for a new trial for the Christmas Eve murders in which his wife, his in-laws, and an acquaintance named Charlie Mays were killed. Although Zeigler was convicted of the crimes 28 years ago, he and his defense lawyers have used every legal avenue possible to gain a new trial.
Using evidence not revealed at the original trial and now-completed DNA testing, his lawyers say they can prove Zeigler's innocence and that the facts warrant a new trial.
And that's all Zeigler has wanted for Christmas since 1976.
Sitting behind bullet-proof glass, his hands in shackles, Zeigler spoke with The Florida Catholic about events endured since his last interview with the newspaper in 2001 and his upcoming hearing in Orlando Dec. 21 and 22, in which one ruling will decide if his Christmas wish of a new trial will come true.
A good night's sleep
Aug. 4 was a memorable day for Zeigler and other prison inmates. For many it was the first good night's sleep they had during the summer months thanks to a small fan that was now allowed in their cells.
There is no air conditioning on Florida's death row, and Zeigler said when it is hot outside, it is hotter inside his 8-foot-by-10-foot cell. Prisoner advocacy groups, including the Florida Justice Institute, Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Florida Death Row Advocacy Group worked with the Florida Catholic Conference to find suitable fans used by prisoners in other states and present a possible solution to state leaders. The state allowed the Florida Death Row Advocacy Group to make a one-time donation of 400 fans to death row inmates. The fans are not mounted on the bars, or on the wall, and have a 4-foot cord that allows the inmate to move the fan as they wish.
"The fans are wonderful and make a huge difference," Zeigler said. "It used to be you would feel hot, dead air all day and night. I was surprised how much the fans helped. It's like going from hell to heaven."
Although a small fan might seem like a small victory, Zeigler said nothing comes easily on death row. That is why although he is extremely grateful for the fans, he is more grateful for another gift he received this summer — his reception into the Catholic church.
Zeigler said his faith and spirituality play a critical role in his life. At 5 a.m. each day, Zeigler reads Scripture and recites and offers prayers. "I try complete my prayer before people wake up because once breakfast gets started, it gets pretty noisy in here," Zeigler said.
Raised Baptist in Winter Garden, near Orlando, Zeigler's first encounter with Catholicism was during his friendship with a high school roommate while he attended Bolles Military Academy in Jacksonville (now known as Bolles School). The two young men would attend both Catholic and Baptist services, and engage in conversations about their faiths.
While on death row, Zeigler met with visitors and chaplains of many different faiths. He said it was the visitors of the Catholic faith who made the best impression with compassionate and understanding attitudes. Zeigler found a spiritual friend in Father Joseph Maniangat, who served as a death-row chaplain for 16 years.
Zeigler said while other chaplains might have spoken of fire and brimstone, Catholic ministers preached love, not hate. He recalled how the first time he met Father Maniangat, the priest did something others did not: He simply sat down and talked to Zeigler.
Soon after his friendship with the priest, Zeigler began independently studying Catholic doctrine and the traditions of the faith.
"Father Joe is an old and dear friend," Zeigler said, adding it was a Catholic chaplain who suggested he think about converting to Catholicism. "That's when I started to think about it, and I felt strongly about (becoming Catholic). I think it is the love and compassion involved in the faith and the doctrine in general that drew me (to convert)."
Father Maniangat, along with another visitor of death row inmates, Bishop John Snyder, retired bishop of St. Augustine, presided at Zeigler's confirmation in July. Zeigler recalled his confirmation as a small but powerful gathering and a wonderful experience. He is especially grateful for the effort his sponsors, clergy and chaplains afforded to provide him with the sacramental experience while on death row.
In an interview with The Florida Catholic, Bishop Snyder said Father Maniangat, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Mission in Chiefland, is faithful to the mission of prison ministry. Bishop Snyder visits death row at least once a month, and has known a number of the inmates, including Zeigler.
"It is a tough scene, especially when you think that some are innocent," said Bishop Snyder, who worked during his 22-year episcopacy to get Florida's governors to abolish the death penalty and overturn death warrants. "I believe the only reason (Zeigler) has remained sane while on death row is his faith in Jesus. Imagine someone in there for 28 years and being sane … but he is sane, there is no question about that."
Prayer for a new trial
It's true, 28 years is a longtime to wait for a new trial, but Zeigler said he could wait even longer to be able to prove his innocence in a courtroom.
"I take it one day at a time. The thing is, I know I didn't do this," Zeigler said. "I think and pray that God will turn this around."
On July 16, 1976, a jury convicted Zeigler of four murders that occurred in Zeigler's Furniture Store in Winter Garden Christmas Eve 1975. Zeigler's wife, Eunice, was killed along with her parents, Virginia and Perry Edwards, and Charlie Mays, Zeigler's acquaintance.
The prosecution for the case, the state attorney's office of Orange-Osceola counties, contends Zeigler committed all four murders on his own. Randy Means, executive director of the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, said the motive for the murders was to cash in on a $500,000 insurance policy on Eunice, a policy developed only a few months before the murders. The prosecution theorizes after performing the murders, Zeigler called for help and shot himself to make it appear he was the victim of a robbery.
"These were cold, calculated, violent and suffering kind of murders committed for the worst of motives," Means said, adding, "there may have been other motives." But he would not list those motives because only the insurance money motive was presented at trial.
Zeigler said he was not in the furniture store during the time his wife and in-laws were killed. However, he had entered the store after their killings and was immediately ambushed by a group of men. Zeigler said the store was dark and he quickly lost his glasses in the struggle, but based on the number of voices he heard, he speculated there were three men in the store. Zeigler kept a gun hidden under his desk in case of trouble or a robbery. He was able to obtain that gun, and during a struggle with one of the perpetrators, fired a couple of shots. The struggle continued and he recalled grabbing the man, whom he possibly shot around the abdomen.
While the prosecution describes the fourth victim, Charlie Mays, as a victim and Zeigler as the perpetrator; Zeigler said he was a victim and Mays was one of the perpetrators. Vernon Davids, one of Zeigler's original trial lawyers, recalled what Zeigler said from "day one": "I think I shot Charlie Mays and killed him." Zeigler maintained that he believes he shot Mays in self-defense while Mays was attacking him.
Zeigler has never swayed from his account of the crime.
The hearing scheduled Dec. 21 and 22 at the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Orlando in front of Judge Reginald Whitehead hinges on whether DNA testing done on two pieces of clothing involved in the crime warrants a new trial. It the last legal avenue for the defense to get a new trial, according to Zeigler's lead counsel John Houston Pope, of the law firm of Epstein, Becker and Green in New York City.
As reported by The Florida Catholic Sept. 6, 2001, then-County Circuit Judge Donald E. Grincewicz of the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida granted DNA testing Aug. 27, 2001. DNA testing was not available at the time of the crime, and labs used at the time could not differentiate blood samples of the victims who had the same blood type. A process called "blood sub-typing," which could have helped differentiate samples splattered on the scene, was available, but was not completed by investigators.
Means said the physical evidence is inconsistent with Zeigler's statements and "consistent with his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Means would not speak of specifics of the case because the prosecution does not want to discuss any possible legal strategies before the court date. However, Means said he believes the DNA evidence discovered by the defense will be beneficial to the prosecution.
"The case has already been decided. There are relevant pieces of evidence found by the defense, and we have to present evidence to counter their opinion or testimony of the evidence. But just because a piece of evidence doesn't look as good or clean as it does in 1975 doesn't mean Zeigler didn't commit the crime," Means said. "We feel our case remains as strong now and even stronger than in 1975."
But the defense said the DNA evidence breaks down all of the prosecutions theories of how the crime was committed.
"DNA reveals the entire premise upon which the initial prosecution took place was riddled with the kind of errors that, had the truth been known to the jury, their verdict would have been different," Pope said.
According to the defense, the two most important facts from the DNA come from Zeigler's t-shirt. Testing from 2002 revealed a saturated blood staining under Zeigler's left underarm was not blood from Zeigler's father-in-law, Perry Edwards.
According to Pope, during the original trial, then-state attorney Robert Eagen questioned Zeigler on the stand and asked how that stain got on the underarm of his shirt. Zeigler said he did not know, and Eagen theorized, in a question posed to Zeigler, the blood came from Perry Edwards as Zeigler had Edwards in a headlock and beat him. During the closing arguments, Eagen vaguely reiterated that point, although he never absolutely stated Edwards bled on Zeigler.
"Now we know that was not Perry Edwards' blood, but Charlie Mays' blood, which is consistent with (Zeigler's) account of the struggle that happened that night," Pope said. "What was tested was a saturation stain, and if Tommy Zeigler had beat Perry Edwards as the prosecution claimed there should have been something to indicate the presence of blood and there was not."
Pope said the other important piece of evidence is that Charlie Mays' pants has a saturation stain around his pant legs that DNA testing revealed to be Perry Edwards' blood. A shot toward Edwards hit his ear, and he was bleeding copiously. He was also beaten in vicious manner.
According to Pope, the defense's blood expert would explain the only way such a large amount of blood could be found on the cuff of Mays' pant leg would be if he was standing next to the "blood source," in this case, Edwards, as he was beaten and "blood continuously flowed out of him," Pope said.
With that evidence, Pope said the prosecution's theory that Mays was a victim and Zeigler was the sole perpetrator unravels. Mays, whose body was found 15 feet away from Perry Edwards' body, was beaten with a linoleum crank while he laid on the floor. If that is true, Pope questions how it would have been possible for his pants to be saturated with Edwards' blood.
"There comes a time when you have to look honestly and objectively at the evidence and at the situation and see that a conviction is no good and it shouldn't stand," Pope said.
Means disagrees. "Mr. Zeigler committed all the murders by himself," he said. "There is no evidence anyone else was with him.
"There is nothing about these revelations that changes any iota of the facts presented to the jury that convicted Zeigler," he continued. "This isn't a case for those opposed to the death penalty as their poster child."
Confidence vs. optimism
Although he is confident about the DNA results and the case he will bring before Judge Whitehead, Pope understands his job is a tough one. Having a court overturn a 28-year-old conviction is not an easy task. "Being confident that you have the right side of things is different than optimism. Even with a good case and the facts and all the angels on your side, you may not win," Pope said. "It is difficult, but I have to be confident about the facts and about Tommy. I can't waver in my conviction that this is the right thing to do, to take it in front of the judge."
Zeigler said he is ready to deal with whatever is the
outcome, but he added he could not have asked for better lawyers,
including his original trial lawyers — Terry Hadley and Vernon Davids —
and his appellate lawyers.
After the direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court was denied in 1980, Hadley and Davids could no longer directly represent Zeigler. But both men said they believe Zeigler and try to contribute when they can. Davids assisted in delivering the evidence to the North Carolina lab that conducted the DNA testing.
Pope has been involved with Zeigler's case for 18 years,
after the firm he worked for found out about the case from the NAACP.
Davids said it is interesting that when Pope's firm was looking to do
pro-bono appeal work for a death row case, the NAACP told the firm about
Zeigler — a white man convicted of murdering Mays, a black man.
Zeigler will be in Orlando for the hearing, along with Pope, Davids and other supporters of Zeigler. Before that time, Zeigler said he will continue to exercise his mind and keep active so his physical and mental state will be sharp, despite looking at the same walls and the same officers within prison.
"I want a new trial, but I don't know what the outcome will be," Zeigler said. "That is a question only God can answer."