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Crucial Details Surface in 40-Year-Old Murder Case

Medill Justice Project investigation finds ballistics evidence raises new questions

  • Reporters discover crucial details missed, conflicting accounts from key witnesses
  • Ballistics evidence raises questions about the guilt of Zeigler, now 70, experts say
  • Zeigler seeks new DNA testing in wake of U.S. Supreme Court ruling

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Crucial details were overlooked in the 40-year-old Florida murder case involving a man sentenced to death row for killing four people found in a furniture store, according to a new Medill Justice Project investigation.

The team of students at Northwestern University’s renowned investigative journalism center discovered ballistics evidence and conflicting accounts from key witnesses that raise new questions about the guilt of Tommy Zeigler. Now 70, Zeigler was convicted in 1976 of the murders of his wife, her parents, and a furniture store customer on Christmas Eve near Orlando, Florida.

“The students’ discoveries are remarkable and significantly challenge the conviction of a man facing the death penalty,” said Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project. Klein, a professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, oversaw the work of the 10 undergraduate and graduate students as part of a class.

The new findings come at a critical time in Florida and across the country. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death-penalty sentencing process, fueling the ongoing national debate. Meanwhile, a pending petition would release crime-scene evidence for new DNA testing in Zeigler’s case.

Among The Medill Justice Project’s findings:

  •  Witnesses Ken and Linda Roach question Zeigler’s guilt, but their accounts were never heard at trial. The Roaches said they heard 12 to 15 gunshots within four seconds while driving by the furniture store, but authorities were not interested in hearing their story and wouldn’t help them contact the defense attorneys. It would be virtually impossible for a single person to fire a non-automatic weapon so quickly, according to ballistics experts.
  • Zeigler, who has maintained his innocence, was discovered at the crime scene with a gunshot wound in his lower torso. The prosecution argued the wound was self-inflicted to make Zeigler look like a robbery victim. But people rarely shoot themselves in such a vulnerable spot to cover up a crime, experts told The Medill Justice Project. Moreover, based on the angle of the bullet as it passed through his body, Zeigler would likely have had to use his non-dominant left hand to fire the weapon. Ballistics evidence suggests Zeigler would have had to shoot himself with the gun positioned away from his body, depriving him of the ability to stabilize the gun’s muzzle against his torso.
  •  The two key witnesses against Zeigler have changed their accounts over the years while details have disappeared, according to interviews with sources, police records, trial transcripts and other court documents, as well as investigative reports.

About The Medill Justice Project

The Medill Justice Project, founded at Northwestern University in 1999, is an award-winning national investigative journalism center that examines potentially wrongful convictions, probes national systemic criminal justice issues and conducts groundbreaking research. As journalists, MJP advocates only for the truth.

 

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