Death row at Union Correctional Institution is as stolid and serious as a heartbeat — that has halted.
Lives are not taken here so much as put on hold. Years, even decades, are spent on appeals and post-conviction motions, drilling down into any flaw in an inmate's capital case.
William Thomas Zeigler has spent more than three decades here staving off his death sentence.
"This is always a very bad time of the year for me," Zeigler says. "It's something that I've learned to live with … but it's a bad time of the year."
That is because 35 years ago this Christmas Eve, in one of Central Florida's bloodiest and most notorious crimes, Zeigler's wife, Eunice; his in-laws, Virginia and Perry Edwards; and customer Charlie Mays were murdered in Zeigler's Winter Garden furniture store. All were shot. Perry Edwards and Mays also were bludgeoned.
Zeigler, now 65, was shot too, in the abdomen. Investigators soon determined Zeigler's wound was self-inflicted and identified him as the suspect in the massacre. A jury, trial judges and the appellate courts all agreed with the theory.
In early February, Zeigler is scheduled to get one more chance to make his case during an evidentiary hearing involving DNA testing. It's the last issue Zeigler has left to argue, but he says death doesn't frighten him.
"When the Good Lord wants me, he'll come take me," Zeigler says. "Until then, the state of Florida, the governor, nobody can — except him."
Anthony case of its day
After the murders, Zeigler's case garnered the kind of media and public attention today's Casey Anthony case has engendered. One big difference: It has taken more than two years to litigate the Anthony case and ensure she gets a fair trial in May; Zeigler was tried and convicted about six months after the killings.
A jury selected in Duval County found him guilty and recommended a life sentence. The initial trial judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Zeigler to death. Another judge handed him the same sentence after an appeal.
Even now, lawyers on both sides of the Zeigler case, the people who know it best, say the once blood-soaked furniture store at 1010 S. Dillard St. remains one of Central Florida's most complex crime scenes.
The prosecution presented a largely circumstantial but multifaceted case. Half a million dollars in insurance taken out on Zeigler's wife provided a motive. Weapons at the scene belonged to Zeigler. An elaborate plan to lure several men to the store, make it look like they robbed the place and killed the Edwardses and Eunice Zeigler had gone awry. The prosecution argued that after killing his family and Mays — one of the stooges — Zeigler was desperate and forced to shoot himself.
Some of the trial's most dramatic and compelling moments came when blood on Zeigler's shirt was discussed. Then-State Attorney Robert Eagan asked Zeigler how type A blood ended up under the armpit of his shirt, noting that his father-in-law had type A blood.
"You can't tell me how you held Perry Edwards around the neck and clubbed him with your right hand as you held him with your left?" Eagan asked Zeigler.
"No, sir, because I did not do it," Zeigler responded.
DNA testing not available in the mid-1970s has since shown that blood on Zeigler's shirt was not his father-in-law's. In fact, it was found to be the blood of Mays, a man Zeigler said he had struggled with that night.
"If you're sitting on a jury and somebody … holds this shirt up and tells you that this is the blood of Perry Edwards and this man held [him] in a headlock and beat him to death, how is that going to make you feel?" Zeigler asks today. "You're going to feel like I'm guilty as hell, aren't you? When it's not Perry Edwards' blood, do you think it would turn that whole jury around?"
Six years ago, Zeigler's attorneys argued the DNA evidence indicated Mays was in the store — with Edwards' blood on him — at about the time of Edwards' death. They strongly suggested Mays had something to do with the murders.
35 years after massacre, Tommy Zeigler touts DNA results in fight for freedom
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