Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lawyer argues for death-row inmate

Lawyer argues for death-row inmate
He says DNA tests raise doubts in the contentious Zeigler case from the '70s.

Jim Leusner | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 18, 2007

An attorney for death-row inmate William "Tommy" Zeigler asked the Florida Supreme Court to overturn his murder conviction, arguing that DNA tests conducted in 2002 raise doubt that Zeigler killed his wife and three others on Christmas Eve 1975.

New York attorney John Houston Pope argued Tuesday that blood found on Zeigler's clothing came from a different victim than prosecutors alleged during his 1976 trial. That bolstered Zeigler's claim that other assailants committed the slayings, Pope said. "It weakens the case against the defendant," he said.

Pope asked the high court to reverse Zeigler's conviction in the Orange County case on grounds that Judge Reginald Whitehead denied a motion for a new trial based on the DNA evidence. Alternatively, Pope requested an "expansive hearing" to reopen the case.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Ken Nunnelley said the evidence does little to refute the case against Zeigler -- whom he said couldn't explain why he was covered in blood -- or witness testimony.

Justices seemed confused at times by the long, complicated accounts of the killings presented by lawyers. Ultimately, the court -- which is reviewing Zeigler's case for the eighth time -- said it will rule at a later date.

Zeigler, 61, was convicted by an Orange Circuit Court jury in 1976 of killing his wife, Eunice; her parents, Virginia and Perry Edwards; and store customer Charlie Mays. The jury recommended life in prison, but the trial judge, Maurice Paul, instead imposed death.

Prosecutors charged Zeigler schemed to collect money on his wife's $500,000 insurance policy. They contended Zeigler killed Mays and then wounded himself in an effort to make it look as though the murders in his Winter Garden furniture store were committed by a masked gang of robbers terrorizing Central Florida.

The case would become one of the most controversial murder cases in the region's history. It has been the subject of books, television shows and appeals from anti-death-penalty groups.

In 1986, Zeigler came within two days of execution. Two years later, the Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing, but he was again sentenced to death in 1989 by another Orange Circuit judge.

After two days of hearings in December 2004, Whitehead later ruled that the DNA tests conducted on blood-stained evidence nearly 30 years old had "no reasonable probability" of convincing the jury of Zeigler's innocence.

Jim Leusner can be reached at 407-420-5411 or

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