The fight for Florida’s death row inmates: ‘Blood and Truth’ seeks exoneration

True Crime December 21, 2021
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“Blood and Truth” re-investigates the case of Tommy Zeigler. On Christmas Eve, 1975, Tommy Zeigler’s wife and in-laws were murdered in a Florida furniture store along with one other customer. The then-30-year-old Zeigler suffered a single gunshot wound to the stomach, and days later he was charged and arrested while in the hospital. On July 2, 1976, he was convicted of quadruple homicide and sentenced to death.

He was scheduled to be executed on October 22, 1982, but new evidence delayed the execution. It was rescheduled for 1986. It was again delayed. In 1988, his death sentence was overturned. He was then re-sentenced and again, given the death penalty. A 2005 DNA test failed to conclude the involvement of a different perpetrator, and he remained on death row. After that test, Zeigler was repeatedly denied multiple DNA analyses of the evidence found at the crime scene. As of 2018, during the recording of “Blood and Truth”, he had been on death row for 42 years.

Before starting their podcast, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton and photographer Cherie Diez followed this case for years. There had been many procedural errors in the original trial: he stood trial only six months after the murders despite his defense attorney’s appeals for more time. Police and prosecutors failed to turn over witness statements. Key witnesses were contradicted in later retrials, and the judge called a juror’s doctor for a prescription of Valium. On top of all this, forensic science was not even in its infancy, and there was no CSI. A rookie cop decided mere hours after the shooting that Zeigler was guilty, and the rest is history.

“Blood and Truth” chronicles LaPeter Anton and Diez as they travel around the Florida-Georgia region to interview dozens of people. Some were involved in the police work and prosecution of Zeigler, while others believe in his innocence. In the past 42 years, others involved in the case have died, some of them supporters of his innocence: his mother, his defense attorney. The judge, who was only suggested by the jury to hand Zeigler a life sentence and instead slapped him with the death penalty, has also passed away.

They don’t just stop with Zeigler, though. There are 28 men on Florida’s death row who have been imprisoned and have been repeatedly denied potentially-exonerating DNA testing. 28 is the most out of any U.S. state. Why is Florida so intent on not letting Zeigler test the evidence? Why don’t they see it fair to let people imprisoned since the 1970s and ’80s have access to 21st century forensic science? These questions merely add fuel to Zeigler’s supporters’ fire.

Zeigler’s case has stretched far and wide in the past few years. Crime Junkie and other true crime podcasts have covered his case and it was featured on the television series Unsolved Mysteries. There have been documentaries and books about the murders, and it’s shocking to see this pressure still not change the resolve of the Florida penal system.

The podcast was recorded in 2018, a year after Zeigler’s case was denied Touch DNA analysis. In February of 2020, a 10th chapter of this story was released to cover what happened in an appeal in the case the year before. In an update from May 2021, a Florida prosecutor agreed to allow DNA testing on evidence that had helped convict Zeigler. Listen to the Tampa Bay Times “Blood and Truth” for the full story.

Listen to ‘Blood and Truth’

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