Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Connecting the Dots - Closing Argument for a Fair Trial

This is a hypothetical closing argument that might have been used by the defense attorney had all of the information that is known now been known in June 1976. While the assumptions made here are based on facts, there is no proof that any of these assumptions is true.
Charlie Mays and Edward Williams had been hired by the loan sharks of West Orange County to eliminate Zeigler. (For a detailed explanation of why Zeigler was unpopular with some of the local business interests, click here.) Williams arranged with his former wife’s son-in-law, Frank Smith, to acquire two cheap handguns that they thought would not be traceable. When Zeigler asked Williams on December 22 to assist him with deliveries on Christmas Eve, they decided that this would be a good opportunity to murder Zeigler and make it look like a robbery. Mays recruited Felton Thomas as an accomplice. (One possibility is that they intended that Thomas would be killed along with Zeigler so that Williams would have a good cover story that he helped fight off the robbers with Zeigler, killing one, but the other got away. It is also likely that others were involved. A young man by the name of Nathaniel Brown had told the defense that a man with a gun shot wound in his shoulder was hiding out in Oakland. This would have accounted for one of the bullets that had been fired but could not be located. His story was never taken seriously at the time. )
Williams came by the store in the afternoon of Christmas eve and learned from Zeigler that his wife and in-laws would be coming to the store that evening to pick out a chair as a gift for the father-in-law. This was a complication they hadn’t expected. Williams knew that Mays would be waiting behind the fence in back of the Winter Garden Inn at 7PM so that Mays and Thomas could jump the fence and come in through the open loading door after Zeigler and Williams arrived. Instead of meeting Zeigler at 7PM at his house as he was supposed to do, Williams drove to Winter Garden Inn to let Mays know about the three additional people who would be in the store.
Now Mays and his accomplices, including a white man in a white Cadillac drove to the front of the store and forced their way in before Zeigler’s wife and parents could relock the door after they entered. They shot and wounded the father in law first and then the two women. Their cars were seen in front of the store by Ken and Linda Roach who reported hearing shots and seeing several cars in front of the store at about 7:20 as they were driving by. ( This information was not reported to the defense until after Zeigler was convicted.) Leaving some men inside the store, they returned to the back of the Winter Garden Inn and probably were let into the back of the store by the men inside. Before Zeigler arrived, his father in law got up from the place he had been initially wounded near the front of the store and tried to reach the front door leaving a trial of blood that Detective Frye thought was left by Zeigler. Before he could reach the door, he was hit over the head and possibly dragged to the back of the store where he was left, still not dead.
After participating in the killings, Felton Thomas got cold feet and wanted out. He had no vehicle and was probably prevented from leaving the Winter Garden Inn by some of the policemen who were on guard in the area. (Jon Jellison, a guest at the Winter Garden Inn, told an investigator for state attorney Bob Eagan in a taped interview that was never turned over to the defense that he had seen a policeman with gun drawn in back of the Inn before he heard shots from the direction of the furniture store at about 9PM.).
When Zeigler and Williams arrived around 7:30, Zeigler was attacked as soon as he entered the rear entry door. They intended to knock him unconscious, but a fight ensued during which Zeigler fired one 22 long rifle shot from his 22 automatic apparently hitting an unknown assailant who was never identified. The 22 automatic misfired after the first shot, but Zeigler managed to grab the 357 from a drawer in the hallway, firing several rounds from it and seriously wounding Mays, During the fight Zeigler got Mays’ blood all over his shirt (which Frye mistakenly thought was his father in law’s blood) before having the gun taken away and being shot himself with the same gun.
With Charlie Mays seriously wounded, the killers decided they had to make sure he was dead by beating in his skull with a linoleum crank. After discovering that Zeigler was still alive, they realized they could not kill him if they were going to frame him. They arranged his wife’s body to make it look like she had been surprised by Zeigler as she stood with her hand in her coat pocket where it was found. They also picked up the live rounds that had misfired and put them in a desk drawer where they would be sure to be found. But they needed something as a clincher. That is probably when they decided to get Zeigler’s 38 from his truck at home.
Edward Williams was sent back to get Zeigler’s 38 revolver, but in order to get his truck out he had to bend the gate yoke since it had been re-locked after Williams and Zeigler arrived. This explains why Don Ficke saw Williams in the Zeigler drive way a little after 8 PM. When Williams returned to the furniture store with the gun - it was easy to steal since the door on Zeigler’s truck would not lock - he backed his truck up to the loading door where it was still parked after police arrived. They shot both of the in laws and the clock with the gun from the truck, emptying all chambers. These were the shots heard by the Jellisons around 9PM. The clock had probably stopped at 7:21 when one of the killers pulled the breaker switch outside the store, but they wanted it to appear that the clock had been stopped by a bullet from Zeigler’s gun when he was committing the murders of his wife and in-laws.
Thinking that Zeigler would not be found for some time, the killers then retreated to the rear of the Winter Garden Inn to plan the story to be reported by Felton Thomas and Edward Williams. Thomas would claim that Zeigler had driven up in a white car (he owned a white Toronado, but had loaned it to Curtis Dunaway that night) and asked them to go to an orange grove to fire the two cheap handguns he supposedly had gotten from Frank Smith.(One problem with this story that was never challenged by the defense was that Zeigler had no way of knowing that Mays would be parked out of sight in back of the Winter Garden Inn.) Thomas was allowed to admit he refused to go into the store after Zeigler arrived. Williams’ story would be that Zeigler had tried to kill him with the gun he had used to finish off his in-laws, but then gave him the gun when it proved to be empty, claiming that he thought Williams was a burglar.
At 9:21 one of the policemen who were involved heard the call from Robert Thompson saying that Zeigler had made a phone call to Don Ficke. They now realized that Edward Williams story would not hold up unless he appeared to be in fear for his life. He was told to get to the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant immediately and ask to use the phone to call the police. He was probably told to just pretend to be calling the police by asking for the police phone number. In reality he would call a friend to pick him up as soon as possible. He had no desire to talk to the police until he had changed clothes and rehearsed his story about Zeigler trying to kill him with the murder weapon Williams had himself used. As Phillip Finch points out in his book, the fatal flaw in the story was that if Zeigler had tried to kill Williams, there would not have been enough time for Zeigler to move the truck from where it was parked (according to Williams) bend one prong on the gate for reasons that are not clear, make a phone call and then shoot himself, and have the blood dry out on his clothes, all in the time it would take Williams to run to the restaurant, estimated to be two or three minutes. Since Williams arrived at the restaurant after the Robert Thompson radio dispatch at 9:21, he must have been hiding at the Winter Garden Inn or elsewhere until after Zeigler made his phone call. The fact that this story was sufficient to send a man to death row can be attributed to the fact that the defense was under such extreme pressure from a biased judge that it did not have time to prepare a case that connected all the dots.


Anonymous Gail said...

I've been a follower of the ZEIGLER case for 20+ years and this, in conjunction with Phil Finch's excellent investigative reporting in FATAL FLAW, is the most plausible explanation of the events of that tragic night as I've ever heard. Well, done.

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