18 Years After Enacting DNA Law, Florida Death-Row Prisoners Are Still Being Denied 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. For a six-part investigative series, Blood and truth: The lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing, Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Leonora LaPeter Anton reviewed more than 500 cases in which Florida’s defendants were sentenced to death. Her investigation disclosed that even after Florida adopted a DNA testing law in 2001, court rulings have continued to create barriers to obtaining testing that could potentially prevent wrongful executions. “Almost 20 years later,” she wrote, “some prosecutors routinely fight DNA requests, especially in high-profile death row cases, and the courts often fail to intervene.” According to Innocence Project of Florida executive director Seth Miller, “[i]n 2018, it is just as hard to get post-conviction DNA testing as it was before we had a post-conviction DNA testing law, and that’s completely upside down.”

The investigative series focuses on the case of Tommy Zeigler (pictured), who has maintained his innocence throughout the 42 years in which he has been on Florida’s death row. On Christmas Eve in 1975, Ziegler was shot and his wife, her parents, and a man who served as Ziegler’s handyman were murdered in Ziegler’s furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida. Ziegler was charged with the murders. The Times series describes the controversial trial and questionable evidence in his case in detail. Ultimately, the jury convicted Zeigler but took less than half an hour to recommend that he be sentenced to life. The trial judge overrode their decision and sentenced Zeigler to death.

Zeigler has sought DNA testing six times. In 2001, he was granted limited testing, which, Anton reports, “appeared to support his story that he was a victim of a robbery at his furniture store.” However, even though Ziegler’s lawyers have offered to defray the entire cost of DNA analysis, Florida’s courts have refused to grant him a more advanced type of DNA testing that is now routinely available in murder cases. Ziegler’s lawyers have already presented evidence discrediting some of the key prosecution witnesses and demonstrating the implausibility that Ziegler could have shot himself through the stomach to fake his own victimization. They argue that the DNA evidence would prove his innocence and, at a minimum, transform the rest of the prosecution’s case by proving that the testimony the prosecution presented was false.

Twenty-eight Florida death-row prisoners have been exonerated, more than in any other state. In 90% of the more than twenty exonerations for which the jury vote is known, jurors had not unanimously recommended death and had in some cases – like Ziegler’s – recommended life. Former Republican state senator J. Alex Villalobos, who helped write Florida’s DNA statute, told Anton that the law was designed to remove doubts as to guilt and that the prisoners should be given access to DNA testing. Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham agreed, telling the Times, “If we’re interested in the truth and interested in avoiding executing the innocent, we need to be allowing this kind of testing.”

(Leonora LaPeter Anton, Blood and truth: The lingering case of Tommy Zeigler, Tampa Bay Times, November 25-30, 2018; The lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing, November 25, 2018; Finding a killer, November 26, 2018; ; Trial and errors, November 27, 2018; Science offers scrutiny, November 28, 2018; Could he be innocent?, November 29, 2018; Epilogue: Judicial system is designed to support a jury’s verdict, even if mistakes were made., November 30, 2018.) See Innocence.