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Summary of Case of William “Tommy” Zeigler:
December 06, 2004
In the 1989 nationally syndicated television program on the case, A Matter of Life and Death, television journalist Ike Pappas noted:
- Zeigler was attempting to clean up corruption right in his hometown of Winter Garden, Florida. He was helpful in shutting down the old Edgewater Hotel, a center of prostitution and drug dealing. But he was also trying to gather information on other illegal activities such as gun running and, most importantly, loan sharking. The loan sharks made a fortune letting [black] migrant workers buy groceries on credit at an interest rate of 520% per year. And Tommy Zeigler alleges that certain members of the Winter Garden police force were in on the action.
Zeigler described what was going on at the Edgewater Hotel in the heart of Winter Garden:
- Youve got a police car sitting out in front of the place and a cop sitting behind the counter. If anything got out of line, they would simply beat the [black] people up and dance them out the back door. This is not something that I was told, but something that I have seen
In the mid-70s, Zeigler tried to obtain the assistance of the Police Chief, the Fire Chief and even the Code Enforcement Officer of Winter Garden in shutting down the Edgewater Hotel. None would help. Finally, he obtained assistance from the Hotel and Restaurant Commission Inspector from the state capital in Tallahassee, Mr. Merritt (now deceased). The hotel was closed for good.
Zeigler did not give in to the threats on his life by local police. He kept fighting to help the blacks in his community. The white loan sharks moved to take the only black-owned liquor license in the area by framing the owner, Andrew James. Andrew James was charged with one count of selling marijuana behind his bar. The state agent on the case was a local man, Mr. Baker.
Zeigler arranged for an attorney for the black man, Andrew James, and testified as his character witness. The character witness for the white man on the other side was Judge Maurice Paul.Tommys side won and Andrew James kept his liquor license. The local racial tumult was so severe a riot broke out and Mr. Bakers house was burned. Zeigler tells what happened then:
When you get stopped by a cop on Main Street and he tells you hes going to kill you if you dont get your nose out of his business, whats to stop him?
Just a few months later the Zeigler family store was hit, a quadruple murder on Christmas Eve 1975. In the Christmas Eve hit on the family business, Tommy’s wife, Eunice, and in-laws, Perry and Virginia Edwards, were killed. Tommy himself was taken to the hospital dying from a bullet wound to the abdomen. Also, Charlie Mays, a black man who was heavily indebted to the local white syndicate (gambling debts), was found dead in the store as well.
Three persons killed in the store had Type A blood: Charlie Mays, Eunice Zeigler and Perry Edwards. Perry Edwards was twice shot and then beaten to death. Everyone agrees that whoever killed Perry Edwards would have his Type A blood splattered all over them. Zeigler has always contended that Charlie Mays, who also had Type A blood, jumped Zeigler in the dark, resulting in a bloody fight almost to the death. The dead, blood covered body of Mays was found in the store near where Zeigler said he was jumped. Blood was splattered everywhere. The question is: whose blood was on which body?
While Zeigler was still in the recovery room from emergency surgery to save his life from the bullet wound to his abdomen, a man named Edward Williams walked up to an Orange County Sheriff Officer, handed the police the primary murder weapon, and fingered Zeigler as the multiple killer. It was later discovered that Edward Williams is the one who ordered two of the other guns found at the scene and had access to two others. He was an employee of Zeiglers. He became the States key witness for the prosecution.
In December 1975 Mr. Lawson Lamar, the current prosecuting attorney on the case, was the Assistant State Attorney at the crime scene. Thats when the State made the critical mistake of not allowing the crime scene blood to be sub typed. In the 1970s, blood sub typing could only be done within 14 days of the crime. Sub type testing of the blood found on the clothing of Mays might have identified those stains as the blood of victims Mrs. Zeigler or Mr. Edwards, rather than Mays, supporting the defense theory that Mays was not a victim but rather a member of a group of perpetrators who was killed in the course of their crime. Sub typing would have definitively indicated whether Tommy was the victim or the perpetrator of the crime. The Orange County Sheriffs Office allowed the blood to sit long past the time for sub typing.
The State argued at trial that there was type A blood splattered on Tommy Zeiglers shirt. But because the State did not sub type the blood, they evaded the question of whether it was the blood of Edwards or the blood of Mays. If the blood on Zeiglers shirt was not the blood of Perry Edwards, then Zeigler could not have killed Perry Edwards. Its that simple.
Many other facts about the trial were amiss. The stench of official corruption and worse pervades every detailed investigation of the facts leading up to the quadruple murder. Highly suspect testimony was offered by the States key witnesses, testimony which would have required people to lift TV consoles over six foot fences and vehicles to be driven through concrete walls. The very man who turned the principal murder weapon over to the police and ordered the purchase of the other two became the states star witness and claimed to be an innocent bystander and claimed that Zeigler simply handed him the murder weapon.
But worst of all, the judge who presided at Zeiglers trial and sentenced him to death (overriding the jury recommendation of life imprisonment) was none other than Judge Maurice Paulthe same man who had been the opposing character witness when Zeigler successfully prevented the local white syndicate from framing an honest black business man, four months before the hit on the Zeigler family store. Judge Maurice Paul refused to step down and let another judge handle the case.
Moreover, there were preposterous irregularities in the jury at the trial. One such problem was that Judge Paul ordered Valium for the one juror who was holding out against a guilty verdict. After taking the medication, she caved. But then Judge Paul placed an injunction against any of the lawyers t
alking to the jurors. That order stands to this day. The lawyers cannot get the issue in front of the courts. Judge Maurice Paulis now on the Senior Bench of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Judge Maurice Paul was on special assignment to the US 11th Circuit when they denied Zeiglers habeas appeal.
In the aftermath of the shocking verdict, Zeiglers defense team set out to prove that the white syndicate did in fact exist and was behind what happened to Zeigler. They worked closely with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) out of Tallahassee. A first arrest for loan sharking was made of a low-level functionary. Then the investigation turned up the chain toward the bigger fish. According to Zeiglers co-trial lawyer, the entire investigation was suddenly ordered halted by Tallahassee and FDLE was pulled out.
In 1981, former sheriffs officer Leigh McEachern claimed that he was present at an illegal pretrial conference at which Judge Paul discussed the evidence in the Zeigler case with the State Attorney, the detective and a third party. According to McEachern, the illegal meeting took place in a conference room of the offices of the state attorney. McEachern claimed that as the meeting broke up, Judge Paul told the State Attorney, Bob, get me one first-degree [conviction] and Ill fry the son of a bitch. McEachern said that he later mentioned the meeting to Sheriff Colman, but did nothing else. He said that he decided to come forward after the Florida Supreme Court affirmed Zeiglers conviction and death sentence.
There was a hearing on this in August 1984. Zeiglers attorneys tried to establish a judicial conspiracy against him based on ill will from the Andrew James matter. Circuit Judge James Stroker ruled that Zeiglers claim was without substance, although he admitted that he could find no obvious motive for McEachern to have lied.
In April of 1987, Zeiglers lawyers made a Florida Public Records Act request for the files of the State Attorney in Orlando. In the files they discovered a tape-recorded telephone interview of John Jellison. The interview had been conducted on April 30, 1976 by a state investigator named Jack Bachman. The tape had been hidden by the State Attorneys Office which failed to disclose anything about it before trial or even in answering requests for disclosure in conjunction with Tommys appeals.
John Jellison, his parents and his sister were staying at a motel next to and behind the Zeigler furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975 and witnessed some of the happenings outside the store. Mr. Jellison told the investigator that at about 9:00 p.m. he and the rest of his family had seen a police car at the back of the store, a police officer aiming his gun toward the store over the top of the car, and had then heard shots as they were watching, and that other police cars had arrived on the scene thereafter.
The States investigator made plain his disappointment with Jellisons recollection:
- [A]s long as you heard the gunshots after, you know, you saw the police car, that wouldnt help us a bit.
When Jellison asked if Bachman wanted to interview his mother, Bachman replied:
- Not unless, you know, you all get together and decide you heard those gunshots before you saw the police car. In that case, wed give you a free trip back to Florida.
Leslie Gift, Defense Team Investigator, understood the implications of the tape:
This is obviously significant because this was 20 minutes before Tommy called for help. It would mean that the police would have to have been involved in the crime.
In the next petition filed with the State Court of Appeal, Tommys attorneys raised the issue of the Jellison tape and the States having hidden it from the trial court, the defense and from discovery, during trial and all the appeals.
The Court of Appeal held that the issue should have been raised before January 1, 1987, the running of the time period for Tommys state claims for relief. Tommys lawyers pointed out that the State had hid the tape until April of 1987. The Court denied relief anyway and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the denial.
The same Freedom of Information Act request yielded another shock. The State Attorney had suppressed the original police report and used an abbreviated police report for the grand jury and the trial. Vernon Davids, Defense Co-counsel:
- If the original police report had been made available to us as it should have been, Chief Bobby Thompson’s observation (written within two hours of being at the scene) that all the blood on Tommy was dry would have clearly supported Tommy’s innocence. This is a classic example of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of the justice system to mislead and pervert the outcome. This is not a search for the true perpetrator. This is an all out effort by the State to win a conviction even after finding out as early as the grand jury stage that the facts indicate that the wrong man is being charged.
In 1989, the Christmas Eve murders were the subject of a syndicated TV documentary, A Matter of Life and Death. Leigh McEachern, former Chief Deputy Sheriff Orange County Sheriffs Office responsible for investigation of the Zeigler crime scene said:
- Unfortunately, we went into that store and gathered that evidence which supported our predetermined conclusion of guilt. There were over 20 different classifications and subgroupings of blood that we could have made and did not because
we knew who was guilty.
In answer to the question whether Zeigler is guilty or innocent, he responded:
- Id have to vote not guilty at this point.
The show prompted John Bulled to come forward. He flew back to the US from England to testify that bullet evidence had been fabricated. There was a hearing. The court ruled his testimony was just not credible.
In 1991, Phillip Finch, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, came to Winter Garden to write an article about the worst murder in central Florida in modern times. Once he started researching the facts, he realized that nothing was like the public had been told. He notified his paper that he could not write the article.
Instead, he stayed and dug for the truth and wrote the book: Fatal Flaw: A True Story of Malice and Murder in a Small Southern Town (ISBN 0-679-40861-4), by Phillip Finch (Villard Books, New York N.Y. 10022; 1992). Finch comes to the conclusion in his book that based upon the States own case, Zeigler could not have committed the murders.
On through the 1990s the Florida Courts continued to rubber stamp the prior decisions. To represent Zeigler on his federal appeals the NAACP bought in a New York law firm. Obviously, the NAACP did not believe the States contention that Zeigler maliciously set up a black man to cover the murder of his wife and in-laws. The new law firm began seeking DNA sub type testing of the crime scene blood as well as a new triala first fair trial.
[to top] Lawson Lamar, the State Attorney (who was involved in the investigation of the original crime scene) has fought for years against allowing a DNA test of the crime scene blood. He argued that DNA testing would not be the same in this case as in a rape case because it cant prove that Zeigler was not present. He also argued procedural defaultits been too long since the trial; just kill Zeigler and be done with it without investigating obvious avenues like DNA testing of the crime scene blood.
In 1997, the nationally syndicated program Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on Zeiglers case. The producers would not air the case until Zeigler took a lie detector test from an examiner of their choice. The show used one of the top law enforcement examiners in the country, John J. Palmatier, Ph.D., Head Examiner for the Michigan State Police. Heres what he said:
er talking to Tommy Zeigler for the period of time that I did and assessing all of the other information that I had, it was my professional opinion that Tommy Zeigler was telling the truth. And that in fact, he had walked into probably an armed robbery in progress, or that was staged for his benefit, and that he was in fact the victim.
In July 2000, the Federal District Court for Florida, the same Federal District Court system on which Judge Paul now sits as an esteemed member, denied all Zeiglers counts for appeal based on procedural default (no review of the merits–just that it’s been too long since the trial). Even worse, it refused to grant any certificate of appealability. This denied Zeigler any legal right to appeal and put Tommy Zeigler at the top of the Florida list for a death warrant.
In November 2000, Zeiglers lawyers filed a request for a certificate of appealability with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. A certificate was finally granted on several grounds. Oral argument was made on January 28 of 2003 in Atlanta. In September of 2003, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rubberstamped the Federal District Court decision, applying procedural default to prevent the accumulated evidence of innocence from being heard by a court.
The 11th Circuit also held that Zeigler had not met the burden of showing that the evidence hidden by the state would have made a difference in the jury verdict. This is especially ironic given the following development. On February 26, 2003, Ms. Peggy A. Dollinger, a juror in the original trial of William Thomas Zeigler, has signed a sworn affidavit stating that if the hidden evidence had come to light during the trial, she would have voted not guilty.
Unfortunately, the attorneys for Zeigler are still barred from any contact with the original jurors because of the Court order of Judge Maurice Paul. Consequently, no one seems to be able to introduce the affidavit in court. And incredible decisions like that of the 11th Circuit, claiming that no showing has been made that the evidence hidden by the state could have changed the outcome of the trial, are being handed down almost a year after this affidavit has been signed.
In the meantime, in January of 2001, Zeiglers lawyers filed a request with the state court in Orange County, FL (Orlando) asking for permission to conduct DNA sub type testing on the blood on the clothes of Zeigler and Mays in preparation for a clemency request to Floridas Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet. Lawson Lamar made public statements in the media that such testing should not be allowed, even if a DNA testing rule or statute were passed in Florida (and it was), because Zeigler was at the crime scene. He then asked Governor Jeb Bush not to allow DNA testing in this case.
Finally, he opposed the DNA testing in court. Jeff Ashton, the Assistant State Attorney who has handled this case for over a decade, had said he would allow DNA testing because if Zeigler was guilty such testing would only strengthen the States case. Ashton was taken off the case and a new Assistant State Attorney, Chris Lerner, was assigned.
Mr. Lerner filed in Court to prevent DNA testing near the end of February, 2001. In May of 2001, when Bianca Jagger requested to be added to Zeiglers visiting list, the State made an overture for limited testing subject to ludicrous conditions. Ashton was put back on the case. Finally, in August of 2001, the same month that Bianca Jagger wrote an op-ed piece in The Miami Herald, an Orlando judge ordered testing of the blood on the shirt of Zeigler and pants of Mays. [The case was then rotated away from that judge.]
The DNA test results have come back. Zeigler was not involved in killing Perry Edwards. Charlie Mays was. Instead of conceding a gross miscarriage of justice and stepping out front to do the right thing, the state attorneys office was quoted in a news article in the Orlando Sentinel claiming that the DNA testing would not set Zeigler free.
In hindsight, what really has happened is all too clear. As Tommy Zeigler fought corruption and opposed exploitation of the local and migrant blacks in Winter Garden, Florida in the middle-70s, he found out more and more how corrupt a tremendous amount of people really were; it had a snowballing effect. Ultimately, it got him where he is now. The only person who was supposed to be in that store Christmas Eve 1975 was Tommy Zeigler. He was the intended victim all along.
It doesnt take the Wisdom of Solomon to figure out why the State Attorney fought to prevent DNA testing and wants to kill Tommy Zeigler as fast as possible despite the DNA test results.
In the famous case of Rubin Hurricane Carter, Judge H. Lee Sarokin found that Carters two convictions had been based on “racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” It would be challenging to find another case better described by that statement than the case of William Tommy Zeigler. We fear nothing short of an international public outcry for a new trial will overcome the inertia of the state attorney and corrupt local politics.
Since the end of February 2001, several things have happened.
First of all, the Paul Rogeau Committee and Coordimento Non Uccidere set up a website out of Turin, Italy for emails and letters to Governor Bush concerning Tommys case. The SantEgidio community in Rome picked up the cause and they added it to there worldwide web site.
Ms. Bianca Jagger became involved in supporting Zeiglers case and distributed press releases about the case in Europe. Subsequently, in May 2001, Ms. Bianca Jagger requested to be added to Tommy Zeiglers visiting list. This request, which was denied for a technical reason and is still pending, shook things up. Suddenly, a letter was issued by Jeff Ashton, who was apparently reassigned to the case, suggesting DNA testing under very unreasonable conditions: waive all rights to further testing, no matter what the results of the initial tests; waive all legal rights based on the fact that the evidence has apparently been tampered with; and have the testing done by the Orlando office of the FDLE.
In addition to these ludicrous conditions, the State Attorney asserted in this same letter that even if Perry Edwards blood is on the clothes of Charlie Mays, that would be consistent with the States case. This is a preposterous assertion that ranks right up there with the States claim that Zeigler took Mays and Thomas to the Orange Grove to fire the guns to get their prints on themeven though all the guns had been wiped clean of any prints.
Finally, it must be noted that, the first page of the narrative of the original police report indicates that City of Oakland Police Chief Bobby Thompson was at the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street from the store while the murders were taking place. Yet he heard no gunshots? Witnesses much further away heard them clearly.
Even more bizarre, Chief Thompson was in this vicinity, out of his jurisdiction, right at the time that the Jellison family claims to have seen a policeman crouched on the ground, outside his cruiser, behind the store, with his gun drawn before a volley of bullets inside the store.
In an amazing feat of self-serving incrimination, Chief Thompsons narrative in his police report starts out by blaming Zeigler for the fact that Chief Thompson was near the store during the crime. The original police report starts the day before the crime.
After Zeigler was convicted and sentenced to death, rumor has it that Chief Bobby Thompsons wife was able to acquire one of the country stores, the outfits that were involved in the loan sharking of the migrant blacks, the very same operation that Zeigler was trying to eradicate from his locale.
Only public pressure has been able to make a difference in this case. The legal system has utterly failed. We need your help. DNA testing has now been completed. I
ts time for a new trial.
B. Author of the Book:
The book about this case is available on the Internet as well. Fatal Flaw: A True Story of Malice and Murder in a Small Southern Town (ISBN 0-679-40861-4), by Phillip Finch (Villard Books, New York N.Y. 10022; 1992)
Click Here to download a PDF file of Fatal Flaw. (and link that to Download the book – “Fatal Flaw” which is on the zeigler menu page at https://fadpprod.wpengine.com/Zeigler/https://fadpprod.wpengine.comwordpress/?page_id=3533 )
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