In what the Tampa Bay Times described as “an epic turnaround” in a 46-year-old capital case, a Florida trial judge is poised to order DNA testing of evidence death-row prisoner Tommy Zeigler has long asserted will prove him innocent of the quadruple murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1975.

On October 27, 2022, Circuit Court Judge Patricia L. Strowbridge indicated she was likely to sign an order directing the production of physical evidence, including guns, fingernail clippings from the victims, and clothes worn both by Ziegler and the murder victims, for DNA testing agreed upon by lawyers for Ziegler and Orange/Osceola County State Attorney Monique H. Worrell. Judge Strowbridge directed the lawyers to rewrite and resubmit the proposed order to include procedural safeguards relating to the chain of custody of the evidence, including information related to the transportation and storage of the evidence and who would be present for the testing.

Strowbridge said that her decision had been influenced by a July 2022 Florida Supreme Court decision that summarily rejected Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s motion to block DNA testing authorized in a court-approved agreement between Worrell and lawyers for Henry Sireci, who also has been on Florida’s death row for 46 years. Despite the Florida Supreme Court ruling, Moody’s office refused to rule out appealing Strowbridge’s order. In a written statement to the Tampa Bay Times, spokesperson Kylie Mason said that the attorney general’s office would “ensure prosecutors and defense counsel do not make side agreements in contradiction with existing rules and statutes,” and that state prosecutors would decide next steps when the order for Zeigler is signed.

Zeigler first requested DNA testing in 1994. In 2001, DNA testing on portions of Zeigler’s clothing found no trace of the victims’ blood. Following those results, Zeigler’s lawyers requested access to more evidence and permission to conduct further tests at their own cost in 2003, but their requests were denied. Worrell reviewed Zeigler’s case as part of the new Conviction Integrity Unit created by then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala and urged Ayala to consent to testing. Worrell wrote at the time, “Can the state of Florida morally justify a decline to support additional testing? Absolutely not.” Ayala denied the request, explaining that DNA evidence alone would not exonerate Zeigler since there was eyewitness testimony, as well.

Both Moody and Ayala have interpreted a 2001 DNA testing law in Florida as permitting DNA testing only in cases in which it would clearly exonerate a prisoner, rather than requiring it in those cases without affecting a prosecutor’s discretion to agree to testing in any case. One author of the DNA statute told the Tampa Bay Times that the law was designed to remove doubts as to guilt and that the prisoners should be given liberal access to DNA testing. Despite the legislative intent to broaden access to DNA testing, an investigation by Tampa Bay Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton found that prosecutorial and judicial rulings have routinely denied access to DNA 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.

The Florida Supreme Court cleared the way in July 2022 for Henry Sireci to obtain DNA testing of numerous items of physical evidence that he alleged will prove his innocence in a different 46-year-old murder. Sireci was sentenced to death for the stabbing murder of an Orlando used car lot owner in a motel room based on junk science testimony that a hair found on the victim’s sock was “microscopically identical” to Sireci’s hair.

In agreeing to DNA testing in Sireci’s case, Worrell said, “when 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. … I certainly don’t want someone innocent to be executed under my watch.”

In August 2020, DNA testing exonerated Robert DuBoise who had been sentenced to death in Florida in 1983 for a rape and murder he did not commit. He had been wrongfully convicted based on junk-science bite-mark evidence and false testimony from a prison informant.


Leonora LaPeter Anton, Death row inmate Tommy Zeigler edges clos­er to long-sought DNA test­ing, Tampa Bay Times, October 272022