In what the Tampa Bay Times described as “an epic turnaround” in a 46-year-old capital case, a Florida trial judge is poised to order DNA testing of evidence death-row prisoner Tommy Zeigler has long asserted will prove him innocent of the quadruple murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1975.
On October 27, 2022, Circuit Court Judge Patricia L. Strowbridge indicated she was likely to sign an order directing the production of physical evidence, including guns, fingernail clippings from the victims, and clothes worn both by Ziegler and the murder victims, for DNA testing agreed upon by lawyers for Ziegler and Orange/Osceola County State Attorney Monique H. Worrell. Judge Strowbridge directed the lawyers to rewrite and resubmit the proposed order to include procedural safeguards relating to the chain of custody of the evidence, including information related to the transportation and storage of the evidence and who would be present for the testing.
Judge Strowbridge stated that her decision was influenced by the July 2022 Florida Supreme Court’s “relatively cryptic, short ruling” in Henry Sireci’s case, where the court upheld a decision by Judge Wayne Wooten to allow an agreement between Worrell and Sireci’s attorneys regarding private evidence testing and denied Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s motion
to block the testing due to lack of standing. Despite that ruling earlier this year, a spokesperson for Moody’s office, Kylie Mason, told the Tampa Bay Times in a written statement that they will “ensure prosecutors and defense counsel do not make side agreements in contradiction with existing rules and statutes,” and that they would decide next steps when the order for Zeigler is signed.
Zeigler, who has spent 46 years on death row, originally requested DNA testing in 1994. In 2001, DNA testing on portions of Zeigler’s clothing found no trace of the victims’ blood. Following those results, Zeigler’s lawyers requested access to more evidence and permission to conduct further tests at their own cost in 2003, but their requests were denied. Worrell reviewed Zeigler’s case as part of the state’s Conviction Integrity Unit and urged then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala to allow more testing; Worrell wrote at the time, “Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing? Absolutely not.” Ayala denied the request, explaining that DNA evidence alone would not exonerate Zeigler since there was eyewitness testimony, as well.
Both Moody and Ayala have interpreted a 2001 DNA testing law in Florida as permitting DNA testing only in cases in which would clearly exonerate a prisoner, rather than requiring it in those cases without affecting a prosecutor’s discretion to agree to testing in any case. One author of the DNA statute told the Tampa Bay Times that the law was designed to remove doubts as to guilt and that the prisoners should be given access to DNA testing. Despite the law intending to widen access to DNA testing, Leonora LaPeter Anton of the Tampa Bay Times
found that prosecutorial and judicial rulings routinely block access to DNA testing. Florida courts have refused death-row prisoners access to DNA testing seventy times, denying 19 men – eight of whom have been executed – any testing at all and preventing nine others from obtaining testing of additional evidence or more advanced DNA testing after initial tests were inconclusive.
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