Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (pictured) has filed motions in a Florida trial court seeking to block DNA testing that the local elected State Attorney had agreed to and a judge had granted in two 45-year-old Orange County death penalty cases.

In pleadings filed June 1 and June 2, 2021 in the Florida Ninth Circuit Court, Moody objected to DNA testing for Tommy Zeigler and Henry Sireci, both of whom were sentenced to death in 1976 and have long asserted their innocence. Six of Ziegler’s jurors voted to sentence him to life, but his trial judge override the jury’s life recommendation and sentenced him to death.

Moody argued that State Attorney Monique H. Worrell lacked authority to consent to the testing, that Ziegler’s and Sireci’s requests for testing did not meet the requirements of Florida state post-conviction law, and that Worrell failed to notify the state attorney general’s office before agreeing to make the evidence available for evaluation by independent laboratories. Both prisoners had been granted limited DNA testing in the past that neither exonerated nor implicated them.

Worrell, who was elected on a platform of criminal justice reform, including reduced reliance on the death penalty, told the Tampa Bay Times that her decision to agree to additional testing “is just about the fact that there have been advancements in DNA science that have produced exonerations.” In August 2020, DNA evidence exonerated Robert DuBoise, 37 years after his trial judge overrode a jury recommendation for life and sentenced DuBoise to death. “[W]hen you have someone who is charged with murder, particularly someone who has been sentenced to death, I don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring advancements in science that may be able to prove their innocence,” Worrell said.

Ralph “Terry” Hadley, one of the lawyers representing Zeigler, questioned Moody’s intervention in the case to prevent DNA testing. “The state’s own expert testified that the DNA testing we had proposed would show if Tommy Zeigler is innocent or guilty,” Hadley said. “Why are they afraid of the truth? Why are they afraid to give us a chance?”

The court has delayed implementation of its orders permitting the testing, but has not yet scheduled a hearing on Moody’s motions.

Zeigler and Sireci have repeatedly attempted to obtain DNA testing for nearly two decades. Both were convicted based on highly questionable evidence.

On Christmas Eve in 1975, Zeigler was shot and his wife, her parents, and a man who served as Zeigler’s handyman were murdered in Zeigler’s furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida. Zeigler was charged with the murders. His post-conviction lawyers have presented evidence discrediting some of the key prosecution witnesses and demonstrating the implausibility of the prosecution’s theory that Zeigler shot himself through the stomach to fake his own victimization. In a six-part investigative series in 2018, the Tampa Bay Times described the prior DNA evidence as inconclusive but said it “appeared to support his story that he was a victim of a robbery at his furniture store.” Advanced DNA testing, his lawyers argue, could provide additional evidence supporting his innocence claim and showing that prosecution witnesses testified falsely against him.

“It is beyond my ability to comprehend why the attorney general would try to stop testing that could potentially prove Zeigler innocent when the same has been agreed to by the state attorney’s office,” Hadley said. “We’re not asking for a free ticket, just the chance to test at our expense the evidence to establish guilt or innocence once and for all.”

Sireci’s conviction rested on the testimony of a prosecution forensic witness that a piece of hair found at the crime scene “in all probability” came from Sireci. Since the time of trial, however, microscopic hair comparison has been widely discredited. The landmark 2009 National Resource Council report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward “found no scientific support for the use of hair comparisons for individualization in the absence of nuclear DNA.” Six years later, in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation formally acknowledged that the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit had for decades provided flawed forensic testimony purportedly matching crime scene hair evidence to the hair of defendants charged with those crimes.

Innocence Project Senior Litigation Counsel Nina Morrison, who represents Sireci, told the Tampa Bay Times that the defense team was “quite pleased that the state attorney has now recognized that it’s in the interests of justice to do all possible DNA testing before a man who has been maintaining innocence for four-and-a-half decades is executed.” The Innocence Project did not comment on Moody’s effort to prevent testing.

Florida has had more death-row exonerations since 1972 than any other state — now up to 30. “We therefore have an obligation to ensure that we don’t add to that number in a way that can’t be reversed,” Worrell said. “I certainly don’t want someone innocent to be executed under my watch.”


Monivette Cordeiro, State Attorney Worrell backs DNA test­ing in Tommy Zeigler death penal­ty case, Orlando Sentinel, May 20, 2021; Leonora LaPeter Anton, Second man on Florida’s death row to have DNA test­ing after pros­e­cu­tor signs off, Tampa Bay Times, May 25, 2021; Monivette Cordeiro, Attorney General asks judge to block DNA test­ing in Tommy Zeigler case that State Attorney agreed to, Orlando Sentinel, June 2, 2021; Monivette Cordeiro, Attorney General asks judge to block DNA test­ing in anoth­er Orange County penal­ty case, Orlando Sentinel, June 3, 2021; Scott Maxwell, Does Ashley Moody real­ly want to exe­cute 75-year-old Tommy Zeigler with­out test­ing DNA?, Tampa Bay Times, June 4, 2021; Editorial, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Moody’s objec­tions to DNA test­ing don’t serve jus­tice, June 72021.