Tommy Zeigler Death Row Wrongfully Convicted Florida

Sheriff Everett Rice

DNA Proved Tommy Zeigler Innocent 15 Years Ago

Sheriff Everett Rice Pinellas County Florida

“This is a case that took off on the momentum of its own mistakes and biases.”
Former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, Attorney Rice Law Group, St. Petersburg, FL.

Robert Foster

I was a young sheriff’s detective in a nearby county when the news reports of the Zeigler Furniture quadruple murder caught my eye. I noted at the time that the newspapers reported days after the murders that the Orange County Sheriff’s Office had a material witness in custody. The news stories reported several times in the days following the crime that the witness’ name was Robert Foster. I assumed, based on the news stories that the case was solved (thanks to one Robert Foster). I was, however, a little surprised that Zeigler was convicted and sentenced to death within six months of his arrest. I thought no more about the case for decades.

My attention was drawn back to the case over thirty-five years later when Lynn-Marie Carty, a friend and neighbor of mine, told me that she was sure that Tommy Zeigler was innocent. I asked her about witness Robert Foster and she said that during pretrial defense discovery the lead detective Donald Frye who signed and filed the affidavit testified that there was no Robert Foster and that even though Frye wrote in his sworn arrest affidavit that Robert Foster was a key witness against Zeigler, Frye insisted that the name Robert Foster, written four times, in his affidavit was a typographical error for his real witness, one Felton Thomas. No one ever asked the question as to how Robert Foster’s name appeared in the Orlando newspapers at least twice and why this error was never retracted or corrected in the newspaper. No amended arrest affidavit was ever filed. Strangely, Frye’s” typo” remained in the record for many weeks until his deposition when he admitted that there was actually no Robert Foster. When the state did not produce Robert Foster at Zeigler’s preliminary hearing questions should have been asked but they weren’t. Where were the reporters? The day of the preliminary hearing they were reporting about Foster appearing at the hearing. They should have asked why Foster, the star witness they had reported on, wasn’t there. Felton Thomas testified at the preliminary hearing instead of, and in place of, Robert Foster. This point is obvious because Thomas testified to the very facts that Frye attributed to Foster in the arrest affidavit. No one checked to see if there was a record of Foster being held in jail at the time. So Frye’s switched identity of his star witness from Robert Foster to Felton Thomas went, without scrutiny for thirty nine years upon Frye’s simple explanation that it was a typographical error and it was “. . . his mistake alone”. Frye has given differing explanations for the “typo”- once blaming a secretary and then saying that he “. . . wrote that in there”. As a deputy sheriff I had filled out hundreds of those arrest affidavit forms to justify an arrest. Cops don’t sign arrest affidavits without reading them. To me, this “typo” explanation by Frye was inconceivable. This substitution of the prime witness’ name went unchallenged by anyone until Frye was forced to say it was a typo and “his mistake” at his pretrial deposition in 1976. Lynn-Marie, a private investigator working on the case pro bono for Zeigler showed me the documentation of the “erroneous” named Robert Foster in not only Frye’s arrest affidavit but also the news clips and transcripts of Frye’s testimony. She didn’t have to twist my arm to get my interest.

The name Robert Foster was lost on the case for decades until Lynn Marie discovered that there was and is a Robert Foster. He is a convicted armed robber who was in Orange County after being released from a North Carolina Prison in the summer of 1975. He returned from North Carolina to Orange County that summer, in custody, to face local charges there. Lynn-Marie found that Foster was a known associate of one of the alleged murder victims, Charlie Mays and Felton Thomas and Edward Williams, the states key witnesses against Zeigler. Foster has a lengthy felony record including armed robbery and escape. It appears that he is in a photo of the crowd outside the furniture store after the murders.1 He is still alive and his fingerprints and DNA are on file but have never been compared against the crime scene. Lynn-Marie’s attempt to locate 1975 and 1976 Orange county jail and court records on Foster were met with assertions that officials don’t have records for that period. This, in spite of the fact that jail dockets are required to be kept forever.

Lynn Marie also found out that the same Robert Foster attempted to rob a Gulf gas station across the street from the Zeigler Furniture store within hours before the murders. Detective Frye recently acknowledged in unpublished documentary footage that there was a robbery report at the gas station, but that it didn’t have anything to do with the case! Even though neighboring town police Chief Robert Thompson responded to this attempted robbery and the murders and even though Det. Frye admits the robbery report, this information was never revealed to Zeigler’s defense. Since the knowledge of the attempted robbery was known to the local police and sheriff’s detective Frye the information about the attempted robbery was imputed to the prosecutor. Today this would be a serious Brady violation by the state. The Brady violation is particularly egregious where Zeigler has always steadfastly maintained that he and his family were the victims of a robbery gone awry. This has been his consistent and unwavering story both in pretrial statements and at his trial (also under Brevital Sodium truth testing). The trial jury should have heard about the attempted robbery. Frye’s statement thirty some years later that the Gulf station robbery had nothing to do with the murders is consistent with all of Frye’s self-righteous proclamations during the proceedings against Zeigler.

Grand Jury Testimony

During the discovery phase of the case Zeigler’s attorneys demanded to know if confidential informant testimony would be used against him. The state responded no it would not. The states response may have been technically true because it did not use any confidential informant at his trial. However confidential informant information played heavily in getting an indictment against Zeigler. Among other information, Frye told the grand jury that he had a confidential informant and other witnesses that said Zeigler was rumored to be a homosexual. These Frye witnesses led Frye to conclude that Zeigler was a “real terror in the community; that he tore up a house that his parents sold because he expected to get it; that Zeigler was a vicious boy: that he had no soul or conscience and no remorse whatsoever; that he cut the leg off of a dog to play a joke2; that he was a man who was a real threat to society; that he would do it again if released; that he once tried to drown his father; and that he was kind of a miser”! Frye related these stories to the jury as information he received from people he said he would not identify. He also told the grand jury that the schools he had gone to “tell {him} that this act (4 murders) can be interpreted as the acts of a homosexual”. Frye proclaimed that “. . . so he is very capable of doing this.” Frye was allowed to present this information with no corroboration in fact other than he learned it from confidential sources that he would not reveal. Apparently none of it was true or it was immaterial because these allegations were not presented at trial. This information would have clearly prejudiced the grand jury and contributed to the jury’s indictment of Zeigler. Branding someone a homosexual in the mid nineteen seventies was unfairly prejudicial. Frye’s appraisal of Zeigler obviously set the biases in motion against him with the police and prosecutors.

Frye testified to the grand jury at length about his theory of the crime and Zeigler’s guilt. Most of his theory was based upon his supposed expertise in blood and blood splatter evidence which was not qualified by or supported by any accepted scientific method.

Lynn-Marie dug up evidence that Zeigler’s brother-in-law Perry Edwards, Jr. is the confidential informant and Frye has indirectly admitted so. Frye has admitted that Edwards, Jr stayed at his house back then and “helped guide” him with the case. Lynn-Marie’s investigation has discovered that Edwards Jr had a much stronger motive to commit the murders and that he truly was the bad character that would commit these murders.

Other Issues

There were many other questionable things that occurred in the prosecution of Zeigler. Most of these questions were assigned error and heard in post-conviction motions. All were resolved against Zeigler.

  1. Judge refused to recuse himself in spite of conflict with Tommy in prior case
  2. Judge denies defense request for continuance.
  3. Juror holding out for acquittal drugged by the judge during deliberations without defense even knowing about it. Juror died believing Tommy innocent
  4. Judge overriding jury on penalty
  5. Jellison tapes hidden
  6. Roach Affidavits and Roach statement at news conference
  7. McEachern affidavit that Judge told state attorney he would fry Tommy if convicted
  8. Perry Edwards, Jr. never investigated for his activity and motive.
  9. DNA debunks state’s main theory at trial that Tommy held Edwards, Sr. in head lock while he beat him.
  10. Creditable sworn testimony of two trusties that the bullet was planted in the orange grove
  11. Felton Thomas’ recent denial that he said the things that he did at trial.
  12. Before trial the state told Tommy’s defense that its potential witness Nathan Brown had died in a shootout and to “take him off the witness list”. In fact Brown did not die until 2006.
  13. Chief Deputy Leigh McEachern’s affidavit that they were holding a Robert Foster as a material witness, yet Det. Frye says Foster did not exist.
    Zeigler deserves, at the least, DNA testing

A review of this case and all of the post-conviction revelations, many dug up by Lynn-Marie Carty’s investigation, cast serious doubt about Zeigler’s guilt. Many of these post-conviction issues have been argued and lost by Zeigler. Unfortunately most of these post-conviction arguments have been presented piecemeal over the years. No court has reviewed the total circumstances of the case. This case cries out for a complete reexamination of the physical evidence and complete DNA testing. How could anyone object? Only those that continue to adhere to the mistakes and biases that propelled this case from the beginning would object to modern DNA testing.

Sheriff Everett Rice

April 6, 2015

1. Frye’s “typo” excuse is nothing but incredible now that we know that there is a Robert Foster, a convicted armed robber who was associated with the witnesses and a victim. Foster was in the area at the time and has been identified in an attempted robbery across the street from the furniture store just prior to the murders.

2. This was refuted by Veterinarian testimony that the dog’s leg was amputated after it was injured in an accident.

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