Saturday, July 08, 2006

Who would shoot himself in the stomach to cover up a crime? And Did I Mention With a 357 Magnum

Zeigler then and now. Photo on the left by Gail Anderson. Photo on the right by Colin Hackley.
At approximately 7:30 PM on Christmas eve 1975, four people were shot to death in the furniture store owned by Tommy Zeigler and his parents in Winter Garden, Florida, a small town near Orlando. The dead were Zeigler's wife, her parents, and a store customer, who might have been there to commit robbery. Zeigler was shot in the stomach at close range with a 357 magnum.
Before the night was over, detective Don Frye of the Orange County (Disney World/Orlando) Sheriffs Office formed the conclusion that Zeigler had committed the crimes and shot himself to try to make it look like the customer, a black man, was responsible. Six months later, Zeigler was convicted of those murders and sentenced to death. The prosecution had somehow convinced the jury that a man could shoot himself in the stomach with a weapon that kicks like a mule and do it with sufficient precision that he would miss any vital organs. For anyone (even a former army reserve medic, as Zeigler was) who has ever fired a 357, that prospect is patently absurd. This is only one of the absurd propositions put forward by the prosecution.
One year ago, a Florida court denied an appeal based on DNA evidence which clearly refutes the prosecution's theory of the crime.
A book, Fatal Flaw, by Phillip Finch published in 1992 lays out the details of the case and argues that Zeigler would likely have been found innocent had the defense had sufficient time to prepare. A booklet, The Appearance of Justice, published in 2006 by Leigh McEachern, who was the chief deputy of Orange County Sheriffs Office in 1975 lays out the DNA evidence and recounts his reason for believing the trial judge, Maurice Paul, was biased.