Over the weekend, William ''Tommy'' Zeigler, a lifelong Christian who joined the Catholic Church earlier this year, spent his 29th Christmas on Florida's Death Row. Who can comprehend the grief of having one's wife and in-laws brutally murdered in the family store on Christmas Eve? Who can imagine the trauma of being rushed to the hospital with a near-fatal bullet wound through the abdomen on the very same Christmas Eve? Or the agony of spending the next 29 Christmases on Florida's Death Row, wrongfully convicted for those murders.
That was Christmas for Zeigler, a white businessman widely thought to be on Death Row because he helped defend Andrew James, a black man, against a group of corrupt white residents trying to shut down his legitimate business.
Zeigler arranged for a lawyer to defend James and appeared as his character witness. Judge Maurice Paul appeared as the character witness for Herbert G. Baker, the white man who brought the charges against James.
James was successful in the case and kept his business. A few months later, on Christmas Eve, there was a multiple murder at the Zeigler family furniture store. Zeigler was charged with the murders. Paul was the trial judge who presided over Zeigler's fate.
Paul overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Zeigler to death. Zeigler has maintained his innocence.
Ironically, Edward Williams, the man who turned the principal murder weapon over to the police and had acquired the two other murder weapons involved in the crime, became the state's star witness. He claimed to be an innocent bystander.
In the 1989 nationally syndicated television program on the case, A Matter of Life and Death, television journalist Ike Pappas noted: ``Zeigler was attempting to clean up corruption right in his hometown of Winter Garden, Florida. He was helpful in shutting down the old Edgewater Hotel, a center of prostitution and drug dealing. But he was also trying to gather information on other illegal activities such as gun running and, most importantly, loan sharking.
``The loan sharks made a fortune letting [black] migrant workers buy groceries on credit at an interest rate of 520 percent per year. And Tommy Zeigler alleges that certain members of the Winter Garden police force were in on the action.''
Now DNA evidence offers Zeigler the hope of a very different future Christmas.
DNA evidence has played a significant role in 14 of the 117 exonerations from U.S. Death Rows. Such evidence is vital, especially in Florida, which -- according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. -- has had 21 people found innocent on its Death Row, more than any other state.
Lawson Lamar, the state attorney in Zeigler's death-penalty case, fought for years to prevent DNA testing of the crime-scene blood. In August 2001, the court ordered the tests. The results, which were reported in June 2002, hopelessly devastate the state's theory of Zeigler's culpability. The results completely support Zeigler's innocence.
On Dec. 20 and 21, Circuit Judge Reginald Whitehead heard the DNA evidence in Orlando. The lawyers for Zeigler asked Whitehead to grant Zeigler a new trial so that -- for the first time -- a jury could look at all the evidence of the case.
The state attorneys argued against a new trial. The state seeks to execute Zeigler without any jury ever seeing the mountain of lately discovered evidence of Ziegler's innocence.
Whitehead now must decide whether to grant a new trial for Zeigler.
How can anyone resist a new trial in this case? There can be no doubt that if the information now available had been known in 1976, Zeigler would never have been prosecuted. One of the original jurors has even signed a sworn affidavit that she would have voted ''not guilty'' if the new evidence had been available at the trial.
The purpose of DNA testing in this case was to establish whose blood was on the clothes of Charlie Mays and Zeigler to show who committed the murders.
No jury has heard most of the evidence of Zeigler's innocence: the DNA test results; the buried original police report, which contradicts the state's case; the buried tape recording of the investigator from the state attorney's office trying to induce potential witnesses to change their testimony; the gunshot-residue tests, which establish that Williams had no residue in the pocket of the pants in which he claims to have carried the freshly discharged murder weapon; or even the testimony of the Roaches and the Nolans, all credible eyewitnesses, that contradicts the state's ''eyewitnesses,'' including Williams.
No jury has wrestled with these questions:
What was Oakland Chief of Police Robert Thompson doing in uniform outside his jurisdiction, sitting at a restaurant across the street from the killings while Zeigler was being shot?
Why did Thompson write the original police report, allow it to be buried by the state attorney and then testify under oath to facts inconsistent with his own buried police report?
Why are Thompson, Mays, Williams and Felton Thomas (the state's other star witness) all connected through the city of Oakland and its migrant camps, the very place where illegal practices that preyed upon black migrant farmworkers were being attacked by Zeigler?
The DNA evidence and the other post-trial evidence of Zeigler's innocence are absolutely clear. Zeigler was wrongfully prosecuted, wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced to death.
After Zeigler's 29 Christmases on Death Row, it is high time to correct this horrendous error. Zeigler's case demands a new trial.
Bianca Jagger is a human-rights activist.
© 2004 Miami Herald