FLORIDA – Advocates keep swinging for Fla. death row inmate – Tommy Zeigler


april 22 sourcehttp://articles.boston.com

In 35 years on Florida’s death row, Tommy Zeigler’s cries of innocence have swayed a former newspaper editor, the daughter of a police chief who helped put him behind bars and an assortment of others who have come to believe that he didn’t commit one of the state’s most notorious mass slayings of the 1970s.

A reporter wrote a book about him called “Fatal Flaw,’’ and national TV programs — including “Unsolved Mysteries’’ — turned a skeptical eye on the evidence. His many supporters now range from a former sheriff’s deputy who helped investigate the slayings to celebrity civil rights activist Bianca Jagger. A private investigator believes in the 66-year-old Zeigler’s innocence so strongly that she picked up his case last year and has worked on it almost full time for free.

On April 11, Zeigler’s longtime lawyers tried again to get the appeals courts to re-examine his case. A new motion claims evidence turned up recently by the investigator pokes more holes in the case against Zeigler and creates enough new reasonable doubt to tip the scales in favor of a new trial. The document claims prosecutors lied and withheld information from Zeigler’s lawyers — including the existence of a key witness.

Prosecutors then and now have portrayed Zeigler as a calculating monster who slaughtered his wife, her parents and another man in the family furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975 to collect insurance money.

Of Florida’s 399 condemned prisoners, only 11 have been on death row longer than Zeigler. Having already survived two death warrants, he can’t help but wonder how soon his time will come now that the state’s death chamber is humming again. Four men have been executed in the past seven months under Gov. Rick Scott — the latest on April 12. Two of them had been there three decades or more. Zeigler knew them well; they were as close to friends as anyone gets in “P-Dorm’’ at Union Correctional Institution.

“When I left on July 16, 1976, and came to death row, my lawyers told me not to bother to unpack, they’d have me out in six months,’’ Zeigler said in an interview at the prison recently. “It’s been a long six months.’

From the beginning, it wasn’t just his defense team that doubted William Thomas Zeigler Jr. was capable of committing the awful crimes.

At 30 he had more than a million dollars in assets thanks to his family’s furniture store, and was a well-liked and prominent figure in the small town of Winter Garden, just west of Orlando. He and his wife Eunice lived in a nice house not far from the store, doted on their many Persian cats and seemed to get along just fine. He’d never been arrested.

That’s why it is still so hard for many to believe that he was responsible for the bloody, confusing scene at the W.T. Zeigler Furniture store on Dec. 24, 1975. Prosecutors say it happened like this: Zeigler lured 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. Then Zeigler shot himself in the stomach to make it appear as if they’d been the victims of a robbery. He staged it all so he could collect on a $500,000 life insurance policy he took out on his wife just months before. All the victims were shot.

Neither side disputes that Zeigler, at 9:20 that night, called the house of a municipal judge who was hosting a Christmas party with many prominent people in attendance and reported that he’d been shot at the store.

The story Zeigler told that night is the same story he tells today. He says he went to the store to do 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 when he arrived. 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 had a reputation in town for sticking up for minorities and migrants who worked picking fruit in the area. He and others believe he was attacked and then framed in a law-enforcement conspiracy because he was about to uncover corruption involving high-ranking local officials, including a loansharking operation that preyed on the migrant workers.

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 for Zeigler, but the judge — in an exceedingly rare move in Florida — overruled the panel and sentenced him to death.

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