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Crime News

Florida Death Row Inmate Accused Of Quadruple Murder Granted New Round Of DNA Testing

After half a decade fighting for further testing in court, death row inmate Tommy Zeigler, 77, will get the opportunity to potentially prove himself innocent of a 1975 quadruple murder through modern DNA testing.

By Christina Coulter
How To Use DNA To Crack A Case

A Florida judge green-lit the DNA testing of decades-old evidence that could absolve a death row inmate of the 1970's quadruple murder of his wife, her parents and a third man. 

Willie Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler, 74, has maintained his innocence since he was accused of fatally shooting his wife, Eunice Zeigler, her parents, Virginia and Perry Edwards, and a fourth man, Charles Mays Jr., in 1975. 

But Zeigler claims he was a victim in a robbery gone awry, and that he will be proven innocent by a new bout of DNA testing approved by an Orlando Circuit Court judge on Dec. 19. Evidence to be tested includes never-before-tested fingernail clippings, the clothing of all of the victims and the guns found at the scene, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“This is a victory for Tommy,” David Michaeli, one of Zeigler’s New York attorneys, who recently visited Zeigler on death row, told the outlet.

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“[He] is guardedly optimistic — Tommy knows from 47 years of living incarcerated in a 6-by-9 cell that anything can go wrong. He’s learned to temper his excitement.”

Approximately 30 bullets were fired inside Zeigler's furniture store in Winter Park Florida on Christmas Eve 1975. Eunice Zeigler and Virginia Edwards were shot and killed, while Perry Edwards and Charlie Mays were beaten to death with a metal crank. Police recovered five firearms and the crank at the scene.

"The theory of the state's case is that the defendant had two appointments on Christmas Eve, one with Mays and one with Edward Williams," Circuit Court Judge Reginald Whitehead wrote in 2015. "Prior to these appointments he took his wife to the store and in some manner arranged for his parents-in-law to go there. He killed his wife, Eunice, quickly, and for her, unexpectedly, since she was found with her hand in her coat pocket, shot from behind."

William Zeigler

Zeigler was shot and wounded in the abdomen; while prosecutors theorized he shot himself in an attempt to stage a robbery-gone-wrong, Zeigler maintains that Mays and two other men, Edward Williams and Felton Thomas, committed the murders while robbing his store. 

Moreover, Zeigler claims that he was jumped by the real killers: 

"It was dark in there, and like I said, I was being bounced around like a ping pong ball, off the walls and everything," Zeigler told the outlet. "And I was shot!"

Mays, Zeigler insists, was killed by the two other robbers, who had supposedly turned on him during the robbery.

Zeigler has maintained that there would be blood on his clothing if he had really beaten Mays and his father-in-law to death, and that modern DNA testing would exonerate him. 

"It was a bloody mess," he told Orlando NBC affiliate WESH in 2015. "How can you beat somebody to death and not get their blood on you?"

Ziegler continued, "I did not kill my wife. I did not kill Mr. and Mrs. Edwards. I did not kill Mr. Mays."

In 2001, Zeigler's lawyers won a limited DNA test of the shirt Zeigler had been wearing on the evening of the murders. The blood of his slain father-in-law, who was shot at close range and savagely beaten, was not detected on the article of clothing according to the Tampa Bay Times.

In 1976, jurors recommended that Zeigler be sentenced to life in prison, however, Judge Maurice Paul overrode this, sentencing him to death. The Orlando Sentinel later reported that Zeigler and Judge Paul testified on opposing sides in an unrelated case in the months preceding the murders, fueling controversy surrounding Zeigler's sentence. 

Originally, Zeigler's execution date on Oct. 22, 1982 was blocked by the U.S. District Court of Jacksonville due to new evidence, according to the Sentinel. His lawyers, Harold Vernon Davids and Ralph Vincent "Terry" Hadley, successfully appealed his second scheduled execution in 1986 to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. His death sentence was overturned in 1988, then reinstated. 

Requests by Zeigler's lawyers for additional DNA testing were denied in 2005 after initial DNA tests did not indicate Charlie Mays was the killer. Additional bloodstain DNA analysis requests were denied again in 2013 and 2016, respectively, according to the Sentinel. A Touch DNA analysis request was denied in 2017; another was approved in 2021 but blocked by Attorney General Ashley Moody. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that attempt in July of last year, paving the way for long-sought testing approval earlier this month.

Although no DNA evidence implicated Zeigler, prosecutors pointed to $500,000 in insurance policies covering his wife, purchased the year of the killings, as his motive. Zeigler has maintained that he purchased the policies under advice from an estate plan. 

In addition, prosecutors said, Zeigler had recently purchased two revolvers. Edward Williams, a longtime friend of Zeigler and his family, testified in court that Zeigler asked him how to obtain a "hot gun" in June 1975. Williams purchased two RG revolvers from another man, Frank Smith, on Zeigler's behalf. But Zeigler denies that he purchased guns or ever did business with Smith.

After his wife and in-laws had been killed, prosecutors alleged that Zeigler took Mays and another man, Felton Thomas, to a nearby orange grove to shoot the guns. His purpose, they argued, was to get their fingerprints on the weapons. Then, prosecutors said, he took Mays and Thomas to his home, where he convinced Mays to load one of the weapons, according to court documents. 

Williams testified that, on the evening of the murders, Zeigler brought him into back hallway of his store, put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger three times. That gun, which prosecutors theorize was the one Mays allegedly loaded, did not fire. Williams allegedly said, "For God's sake, Tommy, don't kill me," before running outside.

Zeigler denies that this exchange took place.

Now, Zeigler's defense has another chance to test all of the evidence collected 47 years ago. Zeigler’s attorneys are paying for the testing, which will be performed by Forensic Analytical Crime Laboratory based in Hayward, California.