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THE APPEARANCE OF JUSTICE
State of Florida v. Tommy Zeigler
Leigh McEachern, former Under-Sheriff, Orange County Sheriffs Department March 2005
The prosecution has an equal interest in insuring a fair trial, not just in loading the record. For what we are seeking is justice, and not merely the the appearance of justice, but a firm conviction in the minds of all involved that justice has been done. Federal Judge for the District of Columbia, in the trial of L. Patrick Gray, former director of the F.B.I.
I received my first notice of the quadruple homicides at the Zeigler furniture store at about 10:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve 1975, while enroute back to my home in Maitland from my parents home in Palm Harbor. Since I had my wife and two children with me, I elected to continue on home and contact Major Richard Overman, Commander of the Operations Bureau, ( who was on the scene) when I arrived. I instructed the dispatcher to notify the Sheriff, but if he chose to proceed to the scene, to have a deputy drive him, due to the festivities at the Sheriffs home.
Upon arrival at home I contacted Major Overman by police radio. He advised that murdered were the wife of the owner, her parents, a former employee, & the owner was in the hospitable, in stable condition with a gunshot to the stomach. On the scene were: Lawson Lamar, Asst. State Attorney; Captain Bruce Churchill, Commander of Detectives; Lt. Gene Blankenship, supervisor of the Homicide Section; along with Det. Don Frye and several deputies from the Crime Lab. processing section. I clearly was not needed.
The following day, (Christmas day) I met with Captain Churchill at the furniture store, who gave me a detailed briefing and guide of the exterior of the store. I did not proceed inside since crime scene personnel were still processing for evidence.
At the completion of that briefing, during which the Captain told me that Det. Frye had already concluded that Tommy Zeigler, acting alone, had murdered all four victims and self-inflicted the gunshot to his stomach, I told the Captain that I had three serious problems with Fryes theory: 1. it was incredible to me that a man self-inflicted a gunshot to the stomach with a 357 magnum, even if he were a thoracic surgeon; 2. Willie Mays pickup truck was in the wrong position (off the store property on the far side of a six-foot fence) if he were there to buy a T.V. set; 3. the electric main breaker on the exterior of the store being in the off position was totally inconsistent with Fryes theory. I asked the Captain if he and Lt Blankenship agreed with Frye, and he replied that neither of them were yet prepared to conclude that Zeigler alone committed all four homicides. I then suggested that he advise Det. Frye that the mind is like a parachute, its of no value unless its open, & make sure Blankenship closely supervises this investigation.
Approximately three days later I attended a detailed briefing of the Sheriff in his office by Det. Frye, with Captain Churchill present. I was advised that Lt. Blankenship had been transferred out of homicide at his request, due to fatigue from extended hours on other recent, complex homicides. At the completion of this briefing, the Sheriff asked Det. Frye if he was ready to serve an arrest warrant on Zeigler, since the news media and several prominent though unnamed persons were pushing for an arrest. I could tell Captain Churchill was not entirely comfort- able with this, and suggested we need not rush to judgement since Zeigler clearly was not a flight risk. Frye assured the Sheriff that both he and State Attorney Bob Egan were ready to charge Zeigler, and the decision was made to do so as soon as an arrest warrant could be prepared.
(I found out several years later, in a conversation with Lt. Blankenship after his retirement, that his transfer had been involuntary because he was not ready to charge Zeigler that soon. It should also be noted that Det. Frye had previously served as the Sheriffs personal aide, and had unique access to him.)
The Sheriff asked me to accompany Frye when the warrant was executed to insure that Zeigler was alert & lucid, and that no media interfered by attempting photos of the reading of the warrant. This I did, and I recall looking into Zeiglers hospital room where he was talking with a nurse or other attendant. I had never previously met either Zeigler or any of his family, nor have I since that day.
The case proceeded on for several months through pre-trial motions, depositions, etc., and the decision was made to transfer the trial to Jacksonville, Fl. due to all the publicity. It was also decided that it would be less expensive to fly witnesses to Jacksonville utilizing department aircraft & pilots, rather than house them all up there throughout-out the trial. This would require a precise scheduling of who was needed when, and keeping the departments only fixed wing plane, along with our chief pilot, otherwise unassigned. The Sheriff asked me to coordinate this.
A few days prior to commencement of the trial, I was called by Det. Frye and advised that a meeting was to be held in the State Attorneys office for the purpose of reviewing a summary of each witnesss testimony and finalizing their sequence of appearance. He suggested that it would be helpful if I could attend, & I agreed. Upon arrival at the S.A.s office then located in the Pan-American Bank Building, I was directed to a small ante-room in which easels had been erected containing large photos &/or drawings of the crime scene. On a small table were numerous depositions of the various witnesses. Present were S.A. Eagan, Det. Don Frye, a third person whom I had met but did not know real well. As Eagan & Frye began discussing the witness sequence, a knock came at the door, Mr. Eagan opened, and greeted Judge Maurice Paul, the assigned jurist for the Zeigler case. My immediate thought was that Eagan would step outside the room to talk with Judge Paul, but instead he invited the Judge into the room, closed the door, and he And Frye then proceeded to begin again discussing the various depositions, referring to the crime scene photos displayed, and in fact providing Judge Paul with a somewhat comprehensive briefing on the entire case.
At the conclusion, which lasted 15 to 20 minutes, Judge Paul stated, Bob, if you get at least one first degree verdict I will fry the son-of-a-bitch. The meeting then broke up, Eagan escorted Judge Paul out, the third person whose face & name
I still cannot recall, and who participated not at all in the session, went elsewhere, while Frye & I returned to my office in the courthouse. On the way down in the elevator, I asked Frye; Don, do these little ex-parte conferences happen very often?. To which he replied; Chief, youre not going to rock the boat, are you? I said; Don, we just tried, convicted, and sentenced Zeigler, and that little session was as wrong as armed robbery. What is done will be the Sheriffs decision.
I proceeded directly to the Sheriffs office and requested an immediate, closed -door conference. I briefed the Sheriff in detail on what had just transpired, at the conclusion of which he leaned back in his chair, and asked my opinion as to the guilt of Zeigler. I reiterated my doubts about the self-inflicted gunshot wound and the placement of Mays pick-up truck, but stated that he probably was guilty, though my personal opinion was like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, really not worth much at all. The Sheriff then leaned forward across his desk, looked directly at me and said, Leigh, the deadline for candidate filing has not yet passed, but thus far I have no opposition. Eagan & Paul are both Republicans, (Colman was a Democrat) and if we make these allegations against those two, the Republicans will definitely run a candidate against me. I dont know just what Ill do right now, but you are not to mention this to Terry Hadley, any of your friends in the news media, even on deep background, or anyone else. Ill handle it! That was the first direct order Colman had ever give me in over ten years of working together.
I returned to my office and reflected on what I considered a major moral dilemma; Was this a lawful order I was required to obey, or an unlawful order which I could disregard. What is the definition of misprison of a felony – knowledge of a felony and a duty to report it? Was that session really felonious, or merely judicial/prosecutorial misconduct? Did I have a duty to report such, and if so, to whom? I recalled conversation I had with Bill Conomos, former publisher of the Orlando Sentinel, soon after Colmans election in 1972. He said the Sentinel had supported Colman because he was more policeman than politician, and if he ever reversed himself, the Sentinel would withdraw its support. All judicial systems produce verdicts, even vigilantes. I truly believed ours to be different, but self-preservation prevailed – power will as power can – and I had become accustomed to the power and position which I enjoyed. Thus I quietly joined the Colman metamorphosis.
In January, 1981, I read an article in the newspaper reporting that a death warrant for Zeigler had been signed by the Governor, and that all appeals had apparently been exhausted. I knew immediately I could remain silent no longer, and that Colman, who had been defeated for re-election in 1980 by Lawson Lamar, would clearly never do anything.
I then contacted Terry Hadley, Zeiglers lead defense attorney, and related the sordid ex-parte conference. He forwarded the information to Vernon Davids, who was directly involved in appeals issues. Mr. Davids arranged for a polygraph to be given by W.T Clark , a polygrapher who had been used by S.A. Robert Eagan on numerous occasions, and whose credibility could then not be challenged. That examination was administered on January 23, 1981, including three different tests, after which Mr. Clark concluded there was no deception.
When Hadley and Davids questioned Colman about my statement that I had fully briefed him on the incident in late June, 1976, Colman replied that he vaguely recalled me quoting Judge Paul as saying he would fry the S.O.B, but he could not recall the circumstances, nor anything about any such ex-parte session.
Colmans response reminded me of the observation of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; My memory tells me it did not happen. My conscience tells me it would be better had it not happened. In time, conscience yields to memory.
A court hearing on this issue did not get scheduled until August, 1984, prior to which Judge Paul, Bob Eagan, and Don Frye all denied any such meeting, and all further declined to submit to a polygraph.
In July, 1984, I discussed the up-coming hearing with my Pastor, and my concerns about publicly confronting Judge Paul, whom I had been told was a fellow Christian, without first having followed the direction in Matthew, chapter 18, vs.15, which requires us to first go to a Christian brother in such a situation. But Paul, now a federal judge, was not that readily accessible. Upon recommendation of the Pastor I attempted to communicate with Judge Paul through a Christian mediation/conciliation service, with no response from him.
The hearing on this issue was held in Jacksonville, Fl. on August 30, 1984, before Judge Stroker. I repeated the allegations pertaining to the ex-parte conference under oath; Judge Paul, Bob Eagan, & Don Frye denied everything, also under oath. Their testimony is therefore essentially cast in concrete, for to change their testimony would subject them to possible perjury.
Although, I have never alleged that Lawson Lamar was the unknown person at that meeting, my entire former staff familiar with the case all say that Lamar would have been the only logical person to have attended, for he personally followed the case in detail from the crime scene on. When interviewed by Ms. Jennie Hess, who did a comprehensive case review for the Atlanta Constitution in August, 1986, I reiterated staff opinion on Lamars possible participation. She interviewed Lamar on the subject, and quotes him in the Aug. 12th edition thereof as follows: There could have been such a meeting – I dont recall a meeting like that. I handled literally thousands of cases in those years, which is true, and as the years go by its really hard to remember where you were on a given day.
That Nietzsche phenomenon again, but at least he avoids absolute denial, under oath or otherwise. No perjury there, just a terminal case of I dont remember.
In November, 1978, I was convicted of 2 counts of grand larceny from the investigative fund of the sheriffs department. The indictment alleged $100.00 to $10,000.00 between Oct.1, 1975 & Sept. 30, 1976; the same for the subsequent fiscal year of 1976/1977. The allegation was first made by a captain the day after I advised him that I was convening a disciplinary review board to hear charges that he had been absent from duty without leave; made an unauthorized appearance before a U.S. Senate Investigating Committee meeting in Miami wherein he had accused Sheriff Colman, State Attorney Bob Eagan, Orlandos Mayor Carl Langford and Police Chief James York, along with Fla. Attorney General Robert Shevin, of being corrupted by Organized Crime, etc. All these allegations were already being investigated by a Special Prosecutor, (known in the media as the black box case). The best defense was a good offense,- the heartless light of the 4th estate focused exclusively on me – and I wasnt named in the black box case!
The investigative fund was exempt from audit by state law, and record keeping was by design very informal, primarily hand-written notes. All my records of disbursements agreed in-toto with the various recipients thereof, except as applied to this captain. The black box case required significant funding, and would have been invaluable in my defense, but the Special Prosecutor, (James T. Russell of Pinellas/Pasco Counties), successfully blocked my attorneys from access thereto.
The prosecution team was excellent – my defense was the Public Defender, a retired F.B.I. agent who had never before tried a case, and who resigned thereafter.
When I initially came forward regarding the Zeigler case in 1981, I was an inmate in state prison; when I testified u
nder oath in August, 1984, I was on parole from state prison – neither of which is a secure position from which to accuse a state attorney and a federal judge. Neither Judge Paul, Bob Eagan, nor Lawson Lamar had any involvement in my case,- I have no axe to grind.
Now, all my civil rights, including the right to own firearms, have been restored. (I even hold a concealed weapons permit, though I never carry one.) I live on 5 acres with a large home, horses, cows, etc., (and 8 adopted, beautiful children); my wife & I own our own real estate company, – all the past has been forgotten!
EXCEPT WHAT I PERMITTED TO BE DONE TO TOMMY ZEIGLER!
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