The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an emergency appeal from Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to stop DNA testing of evidence in the case of Tommy Zeigler, who has lived on Florida’s death row for more than 46 years.
In December, attorneys for Zeigler shipped more than 100 items to a DNA testing company in California a day after an Orlando circuit judge approved the analysis at Zeigler’s expense. But they faced opposition from Moody’s office, which sought to stop the testing and return the evidence.
On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court refused Moody’s emergency request but did not say why.
“This means that we can proceed expeditiously with the testing,” wrote Zeigler’s longtime attorney, Terry Hadley, in an email. “Conceivably, the AG’s office could continue to pursue the appeal, but the ruling is a clear signal that they are not likely to succeed.”
Zeigler is accused of killing his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975. The 77-year-old, who was shot in the stomach that night, has always maintained his innocence.
The Times covered his decades-long effort to secure testing in a series and podcast called Blood and Truth.
The evidence includes never-before-tested fingernail clippings, guns and clothes of Zeigler and all the victims. Zeigler’s lawyers say that if he murdered four people, their blood should be on his clothes.
Moody’s lawyers argued in filings that release of the evidence for testing would harm the state, the public and victims — “all of whom are entitled to finality.”
Zeigler’s lawyers first sought early DNA testing in 1994. The testing was granted in 2001, and the results appeared to support Zeigler’s claim of innocence. Forensic tests on four small squares of Zeigler’s plaid trousers and corduroy shirt failed to detect his murdered family members’ blood.
But that was not considered enough.
When Zeigler’s lawyers asked, beginning in 2003, to further analyze Zeigler’s outfit and later to use touch DNA tests, Florida prosecutors and judges refused. They said the testing would not automatically exonerate Zeigler, as required by Florida’s 2001 DNA testing law. They pointed to witnesses, including Zeigler’s handyman, who told jurors that Zeigler tried to shoot him.
Then Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Monique H. Worrell was elected. Worrell, one of just a couple progressive state attorneys in Florida, signed agreements with Zeigler and another longtime death row inmate, Henry Sireci, to conduct DNA testing months after she took office in 2020.
Judges in both cases approved those agreements with Worrell, allowing the testing.
The attorney general’s appeals stopped the testing for more than two years.
Late Thursday, a spokesperson for the office said that the appeal was still pending and there would be no further comment.
“The court has rejected the last ditch attempt by the attorney general to stop testing,” said one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, David Michaeli, on Thursday. “So what is the purpose of maintaining an appeal challenging the right to do testing? Testing is going to happen either way. So what exactly are we fighting about?”
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