Florida Supreme Court Upholds Denial of Postconviction DNA Testing – Zeigler v. State
The advent of DNA testing has revealed that a surprisingly large number of people convicted of serious crimes were wrongly convicted. This most often takes place in cases that were finished before the advent of DNA testing, which means some of the defendants had been in prison, or even on Death Row, for decades before the technology was available to free them. However, courts have sometimes been reluctant to allow post-conviction DNA testing, believing that the courts’ time should not be spent on “hail Mary” DNA testing requests. I was disappointed to see that the Florida Supreme Court denied a request for DNA testing in Zeigler v. State, a capital murder appeal that grew out of a 1976 case. The court ruled that DNA testing would be pointless because the evidence sought by William Thomas Zeigler couldn’t change the outcome of his murder case.
Zeigler was convicted of the murders of his wife, Eunice Zeigler; a friend, Charlie Mays; and his in-laws, Perry and Virginia Edwards. His two death sentences were reaffirmed on appeal. He requested and received DNA testing in 2001, which found no blood of Perry’s on Zeigler’s clothing but Perry’s blood on Mays’s clothing, corroborating his testimony that Mays was a perp rather than a victim. He moved to vacate his sentences and for more testing, which was denied. At issue here is a further request for DNA testing in 2009, which he believed would show that Perry’s blood was not in Zeigler’s clothes; that it is on Mays’s clothes; and that he did not beat Mays. This would discredit a state’s witness and demonstrate that Mays was the perpetrator, he said. After the circuit court denied the request, Zeigler filed the instant appeal.
The Florida Supreme Court found that Zeigler’s request was barred by collateral estoppel, and also denied it on the merits. It found collateral estoppel applies because Zeigler’s theories about who really did the killings had been rejected in previous appeals. The high court noted that it had already ruled that absence or presence of different people’s blood on different people’s clothes did not establish that Zeigler wasn’t the killer. The Supreme Court went on to rule that Zeigler’s current arguments hold no more merit than the previous ones because he hasn’t demonstrated how more DNA testing could create a reasonable probability of an acquittal or lesser sentence. Movants for DNA testing must explain how the testing will do one of those. Because all stains on the clothes would need to be tested, and because a struggle could have smeared blood on both Mays and Zeigler, the court said, testing would not establish who was the perpetrator. Nor did Zeigler support his arguments for testing of Eunice, the court said. Thus, it upheld the denial of further testing.
Because Zeigler has been sentenced to death for first-degree murder, I would have preferred to see his request for DNA testing granted, or at least analyzed in more detail. The Florida Supreme Court has seen appeals from Zeigler several times before, and the court likely is sick of hearing from death penalty defendants in general. It’s also possible that details left out of this opinion explain why the court believes the testing would be fruitless. But with so much at stake, I would have preferred a clearer explanation of why the testing would be futile. The death penalty is irreversible, of course. And as previously noted, DNA testing has reversed a few death cases, giving rise to concerns about the validity of any one conviction. That means criminal defense attorneys will continue to push for testing whenever it seems appropriate.
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