Zeigler filed a direct appeal in the Florida Supreme Court in 1976.
While the case was pending, the defendant petitioned the U.S. District
Court, Middle District, for a writ of habeas corpus. In 1981, the
Florida Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and sentences and the
district court denied the habeas petition. The U.S. Supreme Court
denied certiorari on the direct appeal the following year.
The signing of Zeigler’s first death warrant in 1982 prompted the filing
of a second habeas petition with the U.S. District Court and a habeas in
the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court denied the
habeas petition three days after filing. The district court stayed
the execution and, in dismissing the case in 1986, directed Zeigler to
initiate all available state appeals before approaching the court again.
In 1983, the defendant filed his first 3.850 motion in the trial court,
which was denied. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court held that
of the 19 points argued in the motion, all but two were, or could have
been, raised at trial or on direct appeal and were not cognizable under
rule 3.850. The court did consider two claims: that Zeigler
did not receive effective counsel at trial, and that his right to due
process and a fair trial was violated because the trial judge was
actually or potentially biased. The Florida Supreme Court in 1984
remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the possible bias of the trial
judge. After the hearing, the trial court again rejected the claim
and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed in 1985.
Zeigler filed a third habeas petition in the U.S. District Court in
January 1986. In May of that year a second death warrant was
signed and a number of appeals followed. The defendant petitioned
the district court to reopen his 1982 federal habeas case. The
district court denied both requests and Zeigler appealed the two cases
to the 11th
Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which granted a stay of execution,
vacated the district court’s judgments and remanded. Also in 1986,
Zeigler filed his second 3.850 motion with the trial court, which
ordered an evidentiary hearing on one of his claims concerning
restrictions on the presentation of nonstatutory mitigating factors.
The state appealed, and in a consolidated opinion the Florida Supreme
Court reversed the trial court’s decision, denied all 3.850 relief and
denied the defendant’s petition for a writ of error coram nobis.
In 1987, the defendant amended his 1986 federal habeas petition and
filed with the district court. The following year, the court
dismissed the case without prejudice. Zeigler filed his second
state habeas petition in the Florida Supreme Court in 1987. He
claimed he was entitled to relief under Hitchcock v. Dugger, in which
the U.S. Supreme Court found reversible error where the jury was
instructed to consider only statutorily enumerated mitigating
circumstances and where the trial judge declined to consider
nonstatutory mitigating circumstances. In its 1988 opinion, the
Florida Supreme Court agreed and vacated the sentence and remanded for
an evidentiary hearing. Because the jury had already rendered an
advisory sentence of life imprisonment, the court directed that the
hearing occur only before a judge.
In 1988, a third 3.850 motion to address issues arising out of the
conviction phase was filed and the trial court venue was moved from the
Fourth Circuit back to the Ninth Circuit with new case numbers.
While the motion was pending, the court resentenced Zeigler to death in
1989. The defendant filed a direct appeal and the sentence and the
state cross-appealed the trial judge’s failure to find an aggravating
circumstance during resentencing. In 1991, the state supreme court
affirmed the trial court’s decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied
the defendant’s petition for certiorari.
In the 3.850 motion that had been pending during resentencing, Zeigler
made five claims alleging misconduct by the state and the trial judge.
The trial court in 1992 ruled all the claims were procedurally barred
and denied the motion. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed on
appeal in 1993 and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari review.
The defendant in 1994 filed his fourth 3.850 motion with the trial
court, which was denied. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the
decision in 1995
The defendant in 1994 filed his third habeas petition in the State
Supreme Court. He claimed the high court erred by not conducting a
meaningful review of the resentencing judge’s override of the jury
recommendation of life imprisonment, that the supreme court erred in
applying the “avoiding lawful arrest” aggravating circumstance in the
case, that the court erred in affirming the doubling of aggravating
circumstances in the Mays murder, that the court erred in relying on a
precedent rejected in Espinoza v. Florida to uphold the “heinous,
atrocious and cruel” aggravating circumstance, and that the death
sentence should be set aside because the jury recommendation of life
imprisonment was based on the panel’s residual doubt about Zeigler’s
guilt. The court without comment denied the petition in 1994.
Zeigler in 1995 petitioned U.S. District Court to reopen his federal
habeas cases. The court in 1996 vacated its previous opinions and
reopened the cases. The defendant filed amended habeas petitions
in 1995 and 1996. The court denied both in July 2000 and Zeigler
appealed to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
That appeal was denied 09/19/03 and the rehearing was denied 12/31/03.
Zeigler filed a 3.850 Motion in the State Circuit Court on 1/15/03,
which was denied on 04/19/05.
The Case of Florida Deathrow Inmate William
Thomas Zeigler Jr.
By Gail Anderson
The case of William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler is a
complex one. In 1975, at age 30, Zeigler was a successful
businessman, a leader in his community and, by all appearances, a
dedicated husband and son. All that was to change on Christmas Eve,
when tragedy struck at the W. T. Zeigler Furniture Store.
On Christmas Eve 1975, a party was in progress
in Winter Garden, Florida. Two of the invited guests, Tommy and
Eunice Zeigler, were not present. Don Ficke, the Winter Garden
chief of police and his wife, Rita, had arranged to drive to the
party with Tommy and Eunice that night, but when the meeting time
came the Fickes could not find their friends. Don and Rita
attended the party anyway.
Around 9:18 p.m., Zeigler phoned and asked to
speak to Don Ficke. There had been a robbery at his store, Zeigler
said, and he had been shot and was badly wounded. He needed help.
By 9:21, Zeigler was helped out of the store,
shirt covered in dried blood. By 9:23, he was checked into the
hospital. Later, surgery revealed that a bullet had passed within
a centimeter of his liver.
Det. Donald Frye of the Orange County Sheriffs
Office (OCSO) lost no time in examining his first major crime
scene. Inside the store there were four bodies later identified as
Eunice Zeigler, Perry and Virginia Edwards (Eunice's parents) and
Charlie Mays, an African-American orange picker who ran a team of
migrant workers and was known to the Zeiglers as a credit customer.
All four had been shot, some with more than one gun, and the two
men had been beaten.
There was a jumble of complicated evidence --
pools of blood in various locations around the store, bloody
footprints, many discarded guns and a separate location for each
body. It was clear to Frye that the spray patterns suggested two
separate lettings of blood, with Charlie Mays' fatal injury
occurring at least 15 minutes after the first violent incident
took place on that spot. In addition, a gun holster lay on top of
some dried blood. Frye concluded that whatever happened had not
been a mere robbery, but had involved a number of distinct and
Observing a trail of blood leading from the
telephone Zeigler had used to call for help to the chair where he
sat when help arrived, Frye also concluded that Zeigler must be
considered a prime suspect. He believed that Zeigler shot himself
in the abdomen after placing the call.
Frye developed a single theory to explain the
visible evidence and promptly set out to "prove" his theory.
However, he neglected to examine and cross-reference all the
available evidence. Some experts say it was neither handled
properly nor thoroughly processed. According to a 1989 statement
made by the chief deputy for Orange County during 1976, Leigh
MacEachern, much evidence was not processed because the OCSO felt
they knew Zeigler was guilty. Based on new evidence that has
surfaced over the years since the trial, MacEachern now feels that
Zeigler is "not guilty."
It is probably reasonable to assume that a key
factor to this extraordinary neglect may have been the two
witnesses who came forward a few hours after the murders. The
testimonies of Felton Thomas and Edward Williams directly
implicated Zeigler as the murderer.
Donald Frye's Account
Frye based his account of the night's events
almost exclusively on the combined testimonies of these two men.
He theorized that Zeigler had planned to kill Eunice for pecuniary
gain (she had $500,000 worth of life insurance), and that her
murder necessitated the deaths of Perry and Virginia Edwards. He
believed Zeigler killed Mays and attempted to kill Thomas and
Williams to implicate them with robbery, while allowing himself to
escape detection. (Zeigler's family business was solid and he was
able to produce approximately half a million dollars for his
What follows is Frye's assumed sequence of the
night's events. Please note that the specified times are not all
as originally stated by both witnesses -- Frye altered them to
successfully combine the two accounts.
According to Felton Thomas, that day Zeigler
had arranged for Charlie Mays to pick up a used television from
the store at 7:30 p.m.
Zeigler had also asked Edward Williams to help
him deliver some Christmas presents that night. Williams testified
that Zeigler had arranged to meet him at 7:30 at the Zeigler home.
Frye believed that some time between 7:00 and
7:24, Zeigler killed first Eunice, then Perry and Virginia Edwards.
A lodged bullet stopped the clock on the store's wall at 7:24. At
7:30, according to Felton Thomas, he and Mays arrived at the store
to pick up the television. A white man Thomas named as "Tommy
Zeigler" approached him and Mays. "Zeigler" suggested they all go
for a drive together. The three drove to an orange grove, where
Zeigler presented three guns to Mays and Thomas, asking them to
try them out by firing into the earth. Frye assumed that this
bizarre request, with which Thomas and Mays apparently complied
happily, was a thinly veiled ploy to get their fingerprints on the
murder weapons. However, when found, the weapons had been wiped
Felton Thomas claimed that when they returned
to the store to pick up the television, Zeigler found he did not
have his keys and tried to break in. Mays, he claimed, was nervous
and asked Zeigler to drive home to collect the missing keys.
Zeigler agreed to do so, and Mays and Thomas accompanied him.
Williams, meanwhile, claimed he was sitting in
his truck in Zeigler's driveway waiting for Zeigler who was by now,
according to Frye's estimation, 20 minutes late for the agreed
meeting. Williams claims he saw him arrive with two men (Charlie
Mays and Felton Thomas), enter his garage and retrieve a box of
ammunition. Williams testified that Zeigler approached and asked
him to wait a few more minutes.
According to Thomas, all three men returned to
the store then. Zeigler coaxed Mays inside, but Thomas grew
nervous and left. Frye believed Zeigler killed Mays at that point.
Frye assumed that Zeigler then went back to his
house, where Williams picks up the story. Zeigler wiped down the
car and drove with Williams back to the store. Once there, Zeigler
went in first. Edward Williams testified that, despite the
darkened condition of the store, when he followed he saw Zeigler
approach him holding a gun. Williams said he was terrified and
claims that Zeigler pointed the gun and pulled the trigger three
times before realizing it was empty. Williams claimed Zeigler gave
him the gun, trying to alleviate his fright. Then Williams managed
to flee, seeking refuge in a restaurant opposite the store.
According to Frye, the time was about 8:50 p.m. Williams made a
failed attempt to contact the police on the restaurant phone, then
fled to Orlando.
About half an hour later, Zeigler called Don
Ficke at the party, asking for help.
Williams later surrendered the gun that he
claimed Zeigler had given him. It was subsequently identified as
the murder weapon that killed Perry and Virginia Edwards.
This version of events would require an hours-long,
complex stratagem, planned down to the last minute. For instance,
the whole plan would have fallen apart if Mays had arrived six
minutes earlier. It is difficult to believe that such a crime,
which Frye would later claim had been plotted for many months,
would be attempted so haphazardly.
Tommy Zeigler's Account
There is a much simpler explanation, which fits
the evidence. This explanation has never been altered nor
contradicted -- and was never looked into by Donald Frye. This is
Zeigler's own account -- his recollections of that night as told
to his defense attorney, Terry Hadley, a few days after the
murders, when he had recovered sufficiently.
Zeigler says that he and Eunice were planning
to give her parents a reclining chair for Christmas. She and the
Edwardses had gone to the store to pick out the chair that evening.
Meanwhile, Zeigler waited for Edward Williams to arrive and help
him with his deliveries. Zeigler had arranged to meet Williams at
7:00 at Zeigler's house. Williams was late; when he arrived, they
drove to the store in Williams' truck.
Zeigler entered the darkened store ahead of
Williams and tried to turn on the lights. (Later it was discovered
that a breaker was shut off.) He was assaulted by at least two men.
(The physician's testimony corroborated a lump on the back of his
head.) He lost his glasses and was unable to see well in the
darkness. (Zeigler's broken pair of glasses was found in the
He says he may have fired one shot in self-defense
with his .22 gun that he wore, but this gun jammed. He threw it at
his assailants, and retrieved a .357 Colt pistol that he kept in a
drawer nearby. He says he may have fired shots with this, though
he is unclear on how many, before he was shot and knocked to the
floor unconscious. When he regained consciousness his assailants
had left. He crawled around the store, eventually found the phone
and called Don Ficke at the party.
Before the trial, Zeigler's attorneys wanted to
confirm his story in their own minds and hoped to bring out more
details of his traumatic encounter. They took him to a psychiatric
clinic near Tampa. There, Dr. Theodore Machler conducted an
interview with Zeigler while he was under the influence of the
drug sodium brevital. The interview supported Zeigler's story,
with an addition. In this subconscious state, he remembered
hearing a white man's voice say, "Mays has been hit; we'll have to
get rid of him." (The cause of Mays' death was not his gunshot
wound, but being beaten over the head with a linoleum crank.) Dr.
Machler is convinced that Zeigler was telling the truth during the
Zeigler's attorneys had the arduous task of
convincing a jury that Tommy Zeigler did not commit these crimes,
but was the victim of a robbery -- and perhaps something more
sinister. Zeigler was actively involved in trying to clean up
corruption in Winter Garden and claimed to have witnessed the
operations of a loan-sharking ring that victimized migrant workers.
Just six months earlier he had also helped an African-American bar
owner retain his valuable liquor license when the owner was being
pressured to sell.
There were allegations that the owner, Andrew
James, had offered to sell drugs to an undercover agent for the
Beverage Commission. Zeigler believed this was only part of an
attempt to revoke James' license, and testified as a character
witness for James. His testimony seriously challenged the veracity
of Baker, the undercover agent. Baker had his own character
witness -- Judge Maurice M. Paul, who would six months later
preside over the murder trial of Tommy Zeigler.
As discovered in 1987, under the Freedom of
Information Act in the Orange County files, some evidence was
withheld from the defense. Other items were turned over to the
defense too late to be processed for trial, despite repeated
requests by the defense. Bullets were not labeled. A lift made
from a bloody footprint was lost. The FBI shredded partial prints
taken from the store and the weapons -- evidence that might have
Charlie Mays' van, found parked behind the
furniture store on the other side of a 6-foot tall fence, was
never processed for evidence. Despite the van's curious location,
prosecution witness Felton Thomas claimed he had gone with Mays to
the store that night to pick up a large console television set. He
said that he and Mays were alone in the van. However, after
reading an article about the Zeigler case in 1986, a woman named
Barbara Skipper came forward with the information that she sold a
large gas cylinder to Charlie Mays that evening. She also said
there were two other black males with him in his van.
A tooth that was lying on Charlie Mays' parka
was lost. At trial, a forensic dentist testified from a photo that
this tooth was not from Zeigler or any of the victims. An expended
cartridge case was found on the scene, and did not match any of
the guns on the scene.
Most devastating to Zeigler's defense was that
the blood was not sub-typed. Test results would have proven who
did what to whom. For example, Charlie Mays' feet were covered in
blood -- knowing whose blood was on his shoes would have been
valuable to the defense.
Although there were over sixty pieces of crime
evidence stored besides the evidence sent to the FBI, the defense
was consistently prevented from timely examination. The state also
failed to test the blood-covered clothes and shoes of Charlie Mays,
and Perry Edwards' clothes.
Edward Williams' trousers were not tested for
gunpowder residue even though he claimed he put a gun in his
pocket -- the gun the state claimed Zeigler used to kill two
people. The trousers were turned over to the defense just two
weeks before trial. Testing showed no residue in the pockets, but
the results came in too late for the trial.
A gunshot residue test conducted on Zeigler's
trousers produced a negative finding, though the state said he had
fired 28 shots from various guns. The state failed to disclose
this negative report in its discovery.
Witness Felton Thomas told Frye that he never
met Tommy Zeigler before the night of the murders. Zeigler
maintains that they never met until his trial. Although Thomas'
testimony seriously implicated Zeigler as a murderer, Frye's team
never pressed him for a full description of the man he claimed
Mays told him was "Zeigler."
When he did provide a threadbare description,
he was off on two obvious points -- what Zeigler was wearing and
what car he was driving. Thomas' description was wrong, even
though he claimed to have spent at least 20 minutes driving around
Notably, neither Thomas nor Williams reported
having seen the large amount of blood that was on Zeigler's shirt
when he was found wounded at the store. Yet, by the time Thomas
saw him, Zeigler had supposedly murdered three people. By the time
Williams drove with Zeigler to the store he would have had to
murder all four.
Edward Williams' testimony was contradicted by
a number of witnesses. In particular, the clothes he claimed to be
wearing and handed in for forensic tests came into question. For
example, Williams claims he ran across the street to the
restaurant to phone the police immediately after he says Zeigler
tried to shoot him. However, witnesses said that after they
watched Zeigler taken to the hospital they saw a black man come to
the restaurant to use the phone.
According to the state's theory, during that
time period Zeigler would have had to attempt to shoot Williams,
move Williams' truck (it was not found where Williams claimed he
left it), wipe it clean of his fingerprints, and bend a prong on
the gate. Then, he would need to go back into the store, call for
help, shoot himself in the abdomen, wait for the police to arrive,
be examined by Chief Thompson and carried to his car, and be
driven away. Indeed, if the witnesses were telling the truth (no
one suggested they were anything other than independent witnesses),
then the logical conclusion is that Zeigler was shot before
Williams left the store.
This testimony, considered with the police log
showing the timing of events, proves Zeigler's innocence.
The Jury Deliberations
Even with all the withheld evidence and the
judge's obvious support of the prosecution (observed by several
people attending the trial and confirmed in four juror interviews),
the jurors' first vote was six to convict and six to acquit.
Eventually the six who wanted to acquit were swayed toward a
guilty vote, except for Irma Brickle. She held out under much
persecution from some of the other jurors and passed out twice
from the pressure. She sent Judge Paul several notes trying to get
his help and to let him know what was going on in the jury room.
He would not see her for fear of a mistrial and eventually
contacted Mrs. Brickle's doctor, who prescribed Valium for her.
After she took the Valium, she could no longer hold out. Though
she voted guilty, she has gone on a national television program to
say that she still does not believe Zeigler is guilty. Recently,
another juror admitted to also taking Valium during deliberations.
Since 1976, startling new evidence has come
forth. Ken and Linda Roach say they called the OCSO to tell them
what they saw and heard that fateful night, but were told their
information wasn't needed. In 1979, still troubled by what they
knew, they contacted the defense to say that while driving past
the store, they heard sounds of many exploding firecrackers. They
also observed a black male walking in front of the store at that
time and saw four cars parked in front of the store, instead of
the two present after the crime. This testimony corroborates
Zeigler's version of events and destroys the prosecution's theory
of a lone gunman.
As a result of the 1987 discovery motion by the
defense, there surfaced a 15-page report submitted by the police
officer first on the scene. In this longer report, the officer
states that the blood on Zeigler was dry when he found him. Yet,
the state claimed Zeigler had shot himself just a few minutes
Next to emerge was a taped interview between
the state's investigator and a young man whose family had been
staying in the Winter Garden Inn behind the furniture store that
night. The young man explained to the investigator that he and his
family had observed a police car and an officer with gun drawn
leaning over the car's hood before they heard shots. The
investigator told the young man that this information would not be
helpful to them, but offered the family a "free trip back to
Florida" if they decided that they heard the shots before they saw
In 1982, grocery manager Ed Rowe signed an
affidavit detailing a discussion he had with Charlie Mays' son,
Ernie (who denied the conversation ever took place), seven years
after the murders. Rowe claimed that Ernie told him his father
left the house that night with a pistol in his coat, telling his
family there would be money for Christmas. Rowe quotes Ernie Mays
as saying, "My father wasn't supposed to die that night. Tommy
Zeigler was supposed to die."
During a 1989 national television production on
the case, Zeigler gained the support of the two producers who
researched the case -- Marion Goldin and Gail Freedman -- both
with impressive credentials, having worked with such programs as
"60 Minutes" and "20/20." Gail Freedman has written a letter to
Florida's Governor on Zeigler's behalf.
In 1991, the book "Fatal Flaw" by Phillip Finch
was published. During his investigation of the case, Finch
concludes that Zeigler is innocent.
In 1997, the television program "Unsolved
Mysteries" devoted a segment to the Zeigler case. Before they
would do so, however, Mr. Zeigler had to agree to undergo a
polygraph examination by world-renowned polygraph expert John
Palmatier, Ph.D. of the Michigan State Police Department. The test
results showed that Tommy Zeigler was telling the truth about what
happened the night of the murders. Dr. Palmatier became a
supporter, and appeared on the program to give the favorable
Denied any relief by the State of Florida, the
Zeigler case is currently before the U.S. District Court under