Peggy Dollinger showed up outside the domed Florida Supreme Court building in the spring of 2007. She’d learned about the DNA results and had come to protest on behalf of the man she helped put on death row.
Inside, Tommy Zeigler’s lawyers argued to justices for a new trial.
DNA tests had been performed on four small squares of the shirt and pants Zeigler had worn the night of the murders. Each square cost Zeigler’s attorneys $1,000.
There was no sign of blood from Zeigler’s father-in-law, Perry Edwards Sr., who’d been shot four times and viciously attacked with a metal crank.
Prosecutors said the results had not altered anything. Edwards’ blood might be elsewhere on Zeigler’s shirt, or the evidence might have degraded, destroying his DNA.
Dollinger, a grandmother with curly gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, stood outside with a dozen other supporters holding signs that read: “Judges Should Not Hold Grudges” and “Fair Trial for Tommy Zeigler.”
Dollinger told Zeigler’s closest living relative, cousin Connie Crawford, that the jury had almost come to blows. She had expressed reservations with the verdict since soon after the trial.
Dollinger by then had signed an affidavit saying that she never would have voted to convict if she’d known that the blood evidence didn’t support the prosecution’s theory.
Now she told the other protesters she felt guilty every day for having convicted Zeigler.
The DNA evidence brought renewed attention to Zeigler’s case, which had already attracted an international audience.
Bianca Jagger, a human rights activist and ex-wife of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, had written a lengthy op-ed in the Miami Herald, urging the judge to give Zeigler a new trial.
A nationally televised re-enactment — called A Matter of Life and Death, featuring CBS News broadcaster Ike Pappas — had included a call-in vote on Zeigler’s guilt. More callers thought he was innocent.
Unsolved Mysteries had devoted an episode to the case; on the show, Zeigler agreed to be examined by a polygraph expert, who concluded Zeigler was telling the truth. Such tests, though, are not admissible in Florida courtrooms.
A former editor of the Orlando Sentinel issued a statement after reviewing reams of court transcripts and depositions at the request of one of Zeigler’s appeals lawyers. Dave Burgin, editor-in-chief from 1982 to 1985, had concluded that his newspaper contributed to Zeigler’s conviction with “sloppy, inattentive, arrogant journalism.” Burgin wrote, “I can only apologize unofficially for the dastardly role the Orlando Sentinel played in the pathetically wrongful conviction of Mr. Zeigler for murder.”
One day in October 2010, Ray McEachern waited for Zeigler inside the visiting room he’d named Death Row Cafe at Union Correctional Institution.
McEachern had become interested in Zeigler after hearing about him from his older brother, an Orlando County chief deputy who had expressed doubts about the conviction.
McEachern had retired from his program management job in Washington, D.C., to a Land O’ Lakes gated community with his wife, Patricia, and Boston terriers, Blossom and Misty.
After reading most of the 3,000-page trial transcript, he had become one of Zeigler’s outraged supporters — a self-described citizen advocate.
Around McEachern, two-dozen convicted murderers in orange jumpsuits — who had killed with concrete blocks and guns and their bare hands — perched on metal stools around metal tables with friends, pen pals, grandchildren.
Zeigler appeared through a door and smiled easily at McEachern. The men had become friends, even though McEachern, a staunch Republican, supported the death penalty.
They talked about sports, politics, the books Zeigler was reading. He’d just finished The Hard Way by Lee Child and started Jeffrey Archer’s novel Kane & Abel.
“What would you be doing with your life if you hadn’t spent 35 years here?” McEachern asked. “You ever think about that?”
“I take it for granted,” Zeigler said, “that I would be doing the same thing I was doing when this thing happened.”
The Florida Supreme Court had turned down Zeigler’s request for a new trial, agreeing with Circuit Judge Reginald Whitehead’s decision. A Democrat who presided over drug court, Whitehead had worked as an Orange County prosecutor from 1986 to 1989 under State Attorney Robert Eagan before becoming a judge in 1994. Zeigler wondered about the fact that the judge had once worked for the man who prosecuted him.
Now McEachern brought up the idea of seeking clemency from Gov. Charlie Crist. No governor wanted to appear soft on crime in Florida, and none had granted clemency since 1983.
But McEachern thought Zeigler had a better shot with Crist than in the courts. McEachern had already written the governor, the attorney general, numerous judges, the Florida Bar, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the FBI and dozens of others on Zeigler’s behalf. He’d hired private investigators at his own expense and created a website, on which he posted numerous YouTube videos with titles like The Tommy Zeigler Injustice and Theories of the Crime.
He lay awake at night worrying about Zeigler dying on death row. This could be his last chance.
Zeigler shook his head. He didn’t want clemency. He wanted to clear his name.
In April 2011, a private investigator held a press conference outside the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando. She identified herself as Lynn-Marie Carty.
Carty, who specialized in reuniting people, had first read about Tommy Zeigler earlier that year in the St. Petersburg Times.
Standing in the sun on the courthouse steps, she said that she had devoted herself to finding out the truth.
In coming years, she would pull at dozens of threads, challenge the police investigation, find contradictions in the stories of some who testified against Zeigler and identify another murder suspect.
On that spring day, she introduced Christine Cooper, daughter of Robert Thompson, the Oakland police chief who responded to the crime scene and took Zeigler to the hospital. He’d written an initial, 13-page report that said Zeigler’s wound was dry, which would have contradicted the theory that he shot himself moments before calling police. That report was not initially turned over to defense attorneys. Later, in a sworn statement, Thompson said the wound was “damp.”
Cooper, who lives in Panama City, said her father was a good man but she concluded that he had changed his story to help the prosecution.
“My father died keeping a whole lot of secrets with him,” she said.
Later that day, Carty received a message from a woman in Jacksonville who had seen the press conference on TV.
When she was 10 years old, Suzi Ambler Graden said, she had watched as a large man with a soft Southern drawl attempted to rob her mother, who managed a Gulf station diagonally across the street from the Zeigler furniture store. “Ma’am, please give me all your money,” he said.
Her mother had screamed at him and he’d left. This had taken place after 6 o’clock on the night of the murders, Graden recalled, and a police officer had gathered information for a report.
The shootings at the furniture store took place sometime after 7 p.m. One of the 28 bullets fired at the store stopped a wall clock at 7:24 p.m. Zeigler summoned help at 9:18 p.m.
Years later, Graden and her mother were watching The Green Mile and remarked how much the actor Michael Clarke Duncan looked like their polite robber. Carty suspected he might have been involved in what happened at the furniture store.
She also found reports in the files of Zeigler’s attorneys that described an averted armed robbery at the TG&Y. five and dime, in the shopping mall across the street from the Zeigler store, just before 9 o’clock on the night of the murders. Two men had been seen lingering in the employee parking lot with a shotgun in their two-tone blue Ford. But they left upon seeing a police escort walking out of the TG&Y with the store manager, who was on his way to deposit the day’s receipts.
Prosecutors had never provided Zeigler’s defense attorneys with those reports, and police had apparently discounted any connections to the murders.
But Carty found one.
Old news stories had mentioned a migrant worker named Robert Foster, who had been the last to see Charlie Mays before he was shot to death at the Zeigler store. Foster had sought protection from police because he feared for his life. Three weeks after the murders, though, his name disappeared from news stories.
It was replaced by Felton Thomas, the fruit picker, and the lead detective claimed the mention of Foster had been a typographical error.
Carty hunted through all 16 Robert Fosters in Florida’s Department of Correction database. Up popped Robert Milton Foster, who resembled a picture of The Green Mile actor that she’d taped to the side of her computer.
Foster had been paroled from a North Carolina prison in the summer of 1975 — six months before the murders — and had come south to Orange County to work in Florida’s orange groves. Carty found someone to verify that Foster and Mays had played softball together.
Carty tracked Foster to a rundown apartment in Tallahassee, where he was known as “Big Bob.” He told one of her associates that he didn’t know Zeigler or Mays. “I never been in Winter Garden,” he said.
In 2014, Carty held another press conference outside the Orange County Courthouse.
She introduced an older man in jeans and boots with slicked back hair, who stepped awkwardly to the microphone.
His name was Ken Roach.
On Christmas Eve 1975, the 33-year-old and his wife, Linda, had travelled to Winter Garden to spend the evening with his wife’s family. They passed Zeigler’s furniture store sometime after 7:15 p.m. and heard a volley that sounded like firecrackers.
Ken Roach saw a black or Hispanic man of medium stature walking from the front of the store toward a pickup truck on the side. They saw four other cars out front, including a newer model white Cadillac, green Ford (likely that of Zeigler’s in-laws), an old, green Plymouth or Dodge and a large car that was blue-green.
Soon after learning of the murders, the couple realized they had heard the gunfire. Roach called the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. He said he spoke with someone who said “we don’t need to hear that.” Eventually, they called Zeigler’s mother, who put them in touch with the defense lawyers. By that time, the trial was about to start. They didn’t testify.
They felt strongly that more than one gunman was involved, because of the number of shots and cars.
Zeigler’s attorneys filed appeals over revelations and accusations of withholding reports.
But Whitehead decided that they could not legally proceed in court. There was enough other evidence to convict Zeigler, so he would not be exonerated.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed with him.
Zeigler and others say the courts have never considered all the evidence or contradictions discovered since his conviction. Everything has been piecemeal.
At the end of her press conference, Carty returned to the podium and pleaded for Zeigler’s life. She didn’t say anything about another theory she was working on. Not yet.
Two years earlier, Carty had received a phone call from a man in Georgia.
Zeigler’s wife, Eunice, had grown up in Moultrie, Ga., and her parents had lived there up until their deaths. The caller suggested she focus attention on Perry Edwards Jr., Eunice’s brother.
Edwards was a corrections officer at a Georgia prison, and, according to the caller, a loose cannon.
Carty researched Edwards online and made a startling discovery. The Edwards family had owned hundreds of acres of farmland in Levy County, Fla., that their son had inherited. At the trial, an asset check had described his parents’ estate as only a house and a car in Georgia.
A month later, Carty received an affidavit from April Nicole Lanier, who had come to believe that Edwards Jr., her grandfather, was involved in the murders.
She said her grandmother had told her that he had gone to Winter Garden on Christmas Eve 1975, and after that night, she’d been told to never ask about what happened. She told Carty that her grandfather was a violent man.
Carty began to think that maybe one of the witnesses, Felton Thomas, had seen Edwards, not Zeigler, outside the store that night. Both men were white, tall and thin, with dark hair.
Carty knew from Zeigler that his in-laws had asked him to become the executor of their estate when they had seen each other over Thanksgiving. He’d told them no. He didn’t want that responsibility.
Plus, he figured that would create family tension. He and his brother-in-law didn’t really get along.
Carty wondered if Edwards had hired a group of men to kill Zeigler at the furniture store.
In March 2016, Judge Whitehead presided over a hearing in the Zeigler case.
This time, a scientist sat on the witness stand at the Orlando County Courthouse, describing recent advances in DNA testing.
Richard Eikelenboom said he had worked with DNA since 1993 at the Netherlands Forensic Institute, his country’s national lab, where the first touch DNA tests had been performed in 1997. Those tests could be conducted on even a trace of skin cells.
In 2008, Eikelenboom was the first to get the results of a touch DNA test into a U.S. courtroom. He later opened a lab with his wife in Conifer, Colo., and has testified in more than 90 cases.
Eikelenboom explained he would test Zeigler’s entire shirt and also the undershirt he’d been wearing, fingernail clippings from the victims, the insides of the guns and the bloodstains on both sides of Eunice Zeigler’s jacket lapel. He would expect to find blood from both Eunice Zeigler and Perry Edwards Sr. on their killer’s clothing. Both had been shot at close range.
Eikelenboom said he also would conduct what’s known as a mini-STR test, designed for older evidence degraded by mold, humidity or UV light. It targeted smaller fragments of DNA, which were less prone to deterioration. And a third test, known as Y-STR, that filtered out all the female DNA, allowing male DNA to stand alone.
Ken Nunnelley, the latest prosecutor on Zeigler’s case, challenged Eikelenboom’s proficiency and accreditation.
He raised the issue of contamination, saying that the authenticity of the DNA is questionable. He also offered an explanation for why Perry Edwards’ blood was not on Zeigler’s shirt.
“Were you aware that Mr. Zeigler was wearing a raincoat and rubber gloves at some point in time during this process?”
Whispers rose in the audience as Zeigler’s supporters traded puzzled looks. No one could remember anyone ever mentioning Zeigler in a raincoat.
“No,” Eikelenboom said.
One of Zeigler’s employees kept a raincoat in the store, and he told police that it was missing after the crime. But there was no evidence to suggest Zeigler had worn it, and no coat was ever found.
David Baer, a retired senior analyst for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab in Orlando, was expected to be a witness for the prosecution, but the state never called him. Instead, Zeigler’s lawyers asked him to testify. Baer said the more modern testing could help answer questions, and he found the defense’s DNA testing request reasonable.
“As a scientist,” Baer said on the witness stand, “my viewpoint is let’s get more data if we can.”
But once again, it would be up to the judge to decide.
Times photographer Cherie Diez and senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.Comment