New doubts about a 39-year-old death penalty case

Fascinating story in the Tampa Bay Times:

Giant poster boards covered with mug shots, crime scene photos and yellowed newspaper articles overwhelm private investigator Lynn-Marie Carty’s tiny living room in Treasure Island.

Carty, a one-time Mrs. Florida contestant, has spent the past three years trying to figure out what happened one Christmas Eve 39 years ago when four people were murdered inside a furniture store in Central Florida. Tommy Zeigler, now 68, was convicted of killing his wife, his in-laws and a citrus crew foreman.

Zeigler’s case has always attracted skeptics: a former Orlando Sentinel newspaper editor; civil rights activist Bianca Jagger; a former chief deputy who worked on the original case and his brother. The case was the subject of a 1992 book called Fatal Flaw. None of their efforts resulted in a new trial for Zeigler.

Zeigler’s New York attorneys hope that Carty’s work is different. This past week, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The motion relies heavily on Carty’s assertion that Orange County sheriff’s detectives and prosecutors not only withheld evidence when they tried Zeigler back in 1976, but they also lied about key details. . . .

On this day, one of Carty’s neighbors, former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, watched a recent interview of the lead detective on Zeigler’s case.

When Rice, 69, who has no connection to the Zeigler case, was done listening, he clenched his hands together and frowned.

“If they execute Tommy Zeigler for this case,” he said, “I’ll have to be against the death penalty.”

The Times piece goes into the details of the case and the doubts about Zeigler’s guilt. One item of interest: At trial, the state claimed that Zeigler’s shirt was soaked in the blood of his father-in-law. (Zeigler was shot in the incident and claimed the murders were committed by intruders. The state claimed he shot himself to make the crimes look like a robbery.) In 2001, Zeigler’s attorneys were allowed to have DNA testing done on portions of the shirt. Those tests did not find any blood from Zeigler’s father-in-law. Prosecutors then objected to any further testing on the shirt.

That seems like an odd way to get at the truth.

Incidentally, Florida leads the country in death row exonerations. At the same time, the state’s governor and legislature are frantically trying to speed up the rate at which the state executes people.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · March 18