TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) – Advances in DNA testing now make it possible to identify perpetrators that would have gone undetected a decade or two ago, but people convicted of a crime have been blocked from having crime scene DNA except in the most unusual circumstances.
However, new legislation could lead to more exonerations and convictions.
Tommy Zeigler has been on death row in Florida since 1976. He was convicted of murdering his wife, her parents and a handyman on Christmas Eve 1975. He has consistently said he was innocent.
“They say that is my blood where I stood over him and beat him, to death. No sir, that is not my blood,” said Zeigler in a 2000 interview.
But when it comes to modern testing of the DNA, Zeigler has been told no by both state and federal courts.
“You have to prove it would change the jury’s mind. I think that’s insane,” said James Grant, a Florida House of Representatives Criminal Justice Subcommittee chair.
Rep. Grant said the standard is almost impossible to meet. He wants it changed.
“A guy like Tommy Zeigler, the DNA may or not prove his innocence, but it certainly helps prove his case one way or another. So what we’ve tried to do is set in place a pathway where we get to a more reliability of conviction,” Grant said.
This legislation, if enacted, will likely free some people who are innocent serving time in prison. It’s also likely to solve some cold cases.
“Because there are probably going to be some people who are not real bright, they can lie to their lawyer and say, ‘Let’s go, test it,’ and a match gets hit for a rape, a murder, or something else that has gone unsolved,” Grant said.
For Zeigler, the possibility of retesting the DNA from the crime scene could mean the difference between dying in prison or on the outside.
“And until it happens to you, you don’t think it can happen to you,” Zeigler said.
The staff analysis for the legislation says 73 innocent people have been released from Florida prisons after DNA testing. Only three people have been on death row longer than Zeigler.
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