Tommy Zeigler: Death on hold - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

Tommy Zeigler: Death on hold

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For the second year in a row Florida leads the nation when it comes to imposing death sentences. Right now we have 404 death row inmates. Only California has more. State lawmakers agree something needs to be done. Maybe we reduce the number of inmates by changing the rules and speeding up executions.  Or maybe we require juries reach a unanimous decision before recommending death in the first place. Both ideas are being considered. The answers won't come easy because when it comes to the death penalty there's so much to consider. Take for example the case of William Thomas Ziegler.

Eventually, time runs out for all of us. Tommy Ziegler knows it better than most. He was 29-years old when a judge sentenced him to death. He will be 68 in a few months... if he lives that long. Tommy says, "In the justice system once the decision has been made. It's like its set in concrete." But concrete can crack and Tommy started chipping away the moment a judge tried to cement his fate.

Tommy Ziegler's swift journey to death row began on the night before Christmas, 1975. He called police to his winter garden furniture store. They found Tommy bleeding from a bullet wound to the gut.  Detectives also found a bloody massacre. Four bodies; Tommy's wife Eunice, her parents Perry and Virginia Edwards and a customer named Charlie Mays. They arrested Tommy when he woke up after surgery.  Tommy says he was "numb. I couldn't believe they were thinking that I killed somebody." seven short months later Tommy Ziegler was on death row.  He claims it was a railroad job.

State prosecutors made the case that Tommy was motivated by greed.  He had recently taken out two life insurance policies on his wife Eunice worth 500-thousand dollars and wanted to cash in.  they allege he killed her parents because they showed up at the furniture store unexpectedly and that Tommy beat a customer named Charlie Mays to death with a carpet crank because Tommy needed someone to blame. To make his story of a botched robbery more convincing investigators believe Tommy shot himself.  This is how the state presented the facts based on circumstantial evidence and not one eyewitness.

State attorney Jeff ash ton has fought to keep Tommy Ziegler on death row since taking over the case in 1989. He says, "There's no other explanation for the evidence." Tommy's original defense attorney Vernon Davids believes much of the evidence, like Tommy's trial was mishandled. He has never been more convinced than he is today that Tommy Ziegler is innocent.  He says, he "knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was railroaded by unethical conduct, deceit and manipulation".

Tommy's legal team felt the deck was stacked against them from the beginning. Starting with the judge assigned to oversee the trial. He was no stranger. Judge Paul and Tommy testified on opposite sides of an unrelated case. Tommy stood up for Andrew James who was threatened with the loss of his liquor license at brown's bar. Tommy claims "judge Paul was definitely biased and prejudiced against me because we had been on opposite sides of a case just five or six months prior to my trial. A lieutenant with the beverage department who was a friend of his was fired because of my testimony." Before Tommy's quadruple murder trial began Tommy's lawyers filed three motions asking Judge Paul to step aside. He refused.  Attorney Davids makes the argument that "it was on him to do his duty and step down as an officer of the court."  but state attorney ash ton says, "there's no aspect of the trial that anybody has really come up with and said hey this is where the judge did something unfair." When Tommy's legal team requested more time to prepare for trial judge Paul said no and he ignored our request to talk about it.

Tommy reaction to the judges' demand for speedy trial was mixed. He knew his lawyers needed more time to prepare but he was also anxious for jurors to hear his version of what happened. The sooner he could clear his name the better. After all, people in winter garden knew Tommy and Eunice Ziegler. They seemed like a normal couple and maybe even happier than most. He was a young army veteran and volunteer football coach when they met. Eunice was a teacher. They attended church together. She played piano; he sang in the choir. They had a big wedding in 1967 and made plans to have children. They never did.  Tommy says, "Not a day goes by that I don't think about her. What we had, what we did, what we could have had, what we could have done." The Ziegler's had a successful business. They owned several rental properties. And from all appearances they had a strong, nine year marriage. Tommy's challenge was to convince a jury that he was not a killer. He would portray himself as the fifth victim from that Christmas Eve bloodbath.

Tommy says, he asked his handyman Ed Williams to drive him back to the store in Williams truck so they could make some last minute deliveries before attending a Christmas party later that night. Tommy says he came in through the back door. He didn't know that Eunice and her parents had also gone to the store about a half hour earlier to pick out a new chair for Mr. Edwards. The moment he walked in two men ambushed Tommy and hit him on the head from behind. During the struggle Tommy managed to reach for a gun he kept in a drawer. He says he used it as a club. Tommy says, at some point he was shot in the stomach.  That's when he hit the floor and briefly blacked out. When he regained consciousness he crawled around in the dark looking for the phone. To his surprise he came across a body. He said he had no clue that his wife, in-laws, or the customer Charlie Mays were already dead. State attorney Ash ton says, Tommy had Charlie Mays blood all over him and Tommy's story about being the victim of an armed robbery never made sense. "It never will, because his story is a lie... because he stood over Charlie Mays and beat him to death with that carpet crank."

To prove he was telling the truth a doctor at a bay area psychiatric clinic questioned Tommy while he under the influence of the drug sodium brevital, sometimes referred to as truth serum. He was also given a lie detector test over the course of several hours. Experts reported not one lie.  State attorney Ash ton says that can be explained because Tommy is "a sociopath. In order to fail a lie detector test you have to have an emotional reaction to lying. You have to feel bad about it. I've cross examined Mr. Ziegler. Mr. Ziegler can lie to your face without the slightest bit of emotion, the slightest bit of concern, the slightest bit of remorse. I've seen it."

Two key witnesses backed up the state's theory and added a strange twist: Felton Thomas and the handyman, Ed Williams said Tommy took them to an orange grove to test fire guns before the murders. Tommy says that never happened. The state believes Tommy wanted to get their fingerprints on the weapons and gun residue on their hands.  Thomas also testified that he went to the furniture store with Charlie Mays to help pick up a TV. But Tommy's strange behavior made him nervous so he left. Tommy says he never laid eyes on Thomas until after his arrest when he showed up at the preliminary hearing. Ed Williams testimony was more damaging. He claims when he got to the store to help Tommy that night he almost lost his life.  He says, Tommy tried to shoot him, but the gun failed to fire. Williams, who passed away several years ago, said Tommy pretended he made a mistake and even tried to hug him. Then he said; Tommy gave him the gun. Williams took it, ran away and gave it to investigators after learning about the murders. Tommy's lawyers found it strange that the man found with a murder weapon was never looked at as a potential suspect. They tried to poke holes in Ed Williams story. For example if Tommy had already killed four people as the state argued he should have been covered in blood. Why didn't Williams mention that to police? Tommy says if he hugged Williams and begged him not to leave then why is there no blood on Williams clothes? During the investigation detectives linked six guns to the killings at Ziegler's furniture store. They believe more than two dozen shots were fired inside.  And yet Tommy says, no gunshot residue was ever found on him and wants someone to explain "how I fired 28 gunshots and didn't get any gunshot residue on me. It is impossible." We will never know who fired the guns because all of the weapons had been wiped clean of fingerprints.

Jurors spent 20-days listening to both sides. Tommy's lawyers felt they had created reasonable doubt. On the first vote the jurors were evenly split. Six guilty. Six not guilty. But over the course of three days things changed. One juror, the final hold-out claimed she and others were coerced. Irma Brickle says, "I was pressured into it. I didn't just feel it... I was pressured into it." Before she died Brickle said another juror used one of the guns in evidence to intimidate her by repeatedly clicking it behind her head. Others shouted at her. She sent a note to the judge, but he refused to see her. Twice, Brickle passed out. But, this process would not be stopped. Judge Paul allowed a doctor to provide Irma Brickle with medication. She said "I got sick and they called the doctor and he just sent some tablets and they turned out to be valium. They fix you where you do not make a decision that you would normally make." Not long after that... she gave in to the pressure. Before her death Brickle said she felt Tommy was innocent. The jury found Tommy Ziegler guilty of two counts of first degree murder and two counts of second degree murder. They recommended he be sentenced to life in prison. Judge Paul had other plans. It was July 1976. The month Florida reinstated the death penalty. Judge Paul decided to use it on Tommy.

After the trial Leigh McEachern, one of the cops who arrested Tommy dropped a bombshell.  he said before Tommy's trial started he heard judge Paul make a deal with the state attorney, bob Eagan, "okay, bob, just get me one conviction and I'll fry the son of a bitch." Both men denied that conversation took place and a state court ruled the accusation was not credible.

Through the years: lawyers for Tommy Ziegler have filed several motions for post- conviction relief. Many of their complaints are based on information they learned long after the trial. For example, during the trial prosecutors withheld a recording of an eye-witness named John Jellison talking to a state investigator. Jellison was staying in a hotel behind the furniture store on Christmas Eve. He reported seeing a police officer with a gun drawn before he heard shots fired. And that contradicted the sequence of events investigators had established. Even after the investigator hints for Jellison to re-order what he saw Jellison sticks with his story. Jurors never heard from john Jellison because the state suppressed the evidence. The defense didn't learn about it until it was released following a freedom of information request12-years after the trial. Vernon Davids believes it could have undermined the state's theory and created reasonable doubt in Tommy's favor. He says, "The concealing of the Jellison tape would have been devastating at trial." By the time it reached an appeals court the recording fell on deaf ears. The court in essence said: Tommy should have brought it up sooner. Motion denied.

And there was this little detail: during the initial investigation homicide detective Donald Frye, the same man who arrested Tommy Ziegler wrote about interviewing a witness named Robert foster, man with a long criminal history who knew the victim Charlie Mays. But during a sworn deposition... when Tommy's lawyers tried to learn more about this witness... detective Frye said the name Robert foster "didn't register" with him and that it must have been a typographical error. Ziegler says, "When you are told by the lead detective the man is a typographical error what do you do? Do you believe him? Or do you waste time when you are pressed for time to keep fighting and try to find him."Remember: time was never on Tommy's side. This trial was on a fast track. Robert foster was forgotten until a private investigator named Lynn Marie Carty who has worked on Tommy's behalf without pay for two years, tracked foster down in 2011. He now lives in Tallahassee. Carty also learned that foster, the same man the prosecution called "a typographical error" was suspected of trying to hold up a gas station across from Ziegler's furniture store on the same night of the murders.  State attorney Ashton calls the allegation that Foster may have been involved the "sort of the lunacy of these continued defense tactics. They come up with these bizarre stories and expect us to just leave our credibility out the window." The discovery of Robert foster prompted a hearing last year before circuit judge Reginald Whitehead. As usual it didn't go Tommy's way. The judge ruled that Robert foster's appearance would not have made any difference in the outcome of his trial. It's now up to the Florida Supreme Court to decide if Judge Whitehead's ruling is correct. This is the only appeal Tommy Ziegler has pending.

In February, the Supreme Court denied his request for a second round of DNA testing because like the first round of testing in 2001. The court said DNA could not prove that Ziegler was not the killer. Ashton says, Tommy was given his due process. "We fully fleshed out the record and the court found as has the Supreme Court said more than a decade before... these DNA results just don't tell us anything definitive one way or the other."

So what's next? Well, if the Supreme Court rules against Tommy in the coming days by upholding a lower court decision that Robert Foster's testimony wouldn't change anything then Tommy may be right about  "... justice system decisions being set in concrete." ..  even if those decisions take 37 years to cure and seal. According to Ashton, Tommy will die on death row one way or the other. "Whether that's by natural causes or by the hands of the state, I don't know." Neither does Tommy. But, he vows to keep fighting and looking for ways to clear his name until his last breath. He asks the question "Is there any other way that I can prove my innocence? Please tell me something else and I'll do it."

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We don't know if Tommy Ziegler is telling the truth: he may be guilty. But there is no denying that he and others working on his behalf have done a good job of creating doubt... something his lawyers didn't have time to do during his speedy trial in 1976. Had all these details been revealed to the jury... would they have rendered a different verdict? We'll never know. What we do know is this: Tommy Ziegler has spent nearly 37 years on death row trying to clear his name while the state of Florida has spent the same amount of time defending its decision to execute him. For now Tommy Ziegler's death is on hold.

For more information about Tommy Zeiglar's legal struggles or to follow Lynn Marie Carty's investigation, visit: http://www.tommyzeiglerisinnocent.com/  (DISCLAIMER: WFLA News Channel 8 is providing this link, but does not endorse the content contained on the linked site in any way.)

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