During their final spring semester twenty five (25) undergraduate and five (5) graduate students from Penn State University (PSU) reviewed documents pertaining to the trial and conviction of William Thomas Zeigler.
Mr. Zeigler was convicted in 1976 of murdering his wife Eunice Zeigler, his father-in-law and mother-in-law, Perry and Virginia Edwards, and a customer, Charlie Mays, on Christmas Eve 1975. The murders had occurred in the family-owned furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida. He is currently on Florida’s death row appealing his conviction.
The PSU students conducted this case review as an assignment for their Capstone course; a course designed to finalize each student’s education in criminalistics and forensic science through self-study and exercises such as the reconstruction/review of a major case such as the Zeigler investigation. Penn State Forensic Science graduates are expected to possess the requisite skills to effectively manage the various types of physical evidence encountered at the crime scene and in the laboratory. This case provided an excellent opportunity for the students to demonstrate their appreciation for the importance of a holistic approach to the scientific investigation of crimes.
The students were provided in excess of 10,000 pages of information that included limited crime scene photographs and reports from forensic laboratories used by both the prosecution and the defense. The majority of the documents were transcripts from the original trial and hearings. The students were asked to prepare a report and a presentation that included consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of prosecution and defense cases with respect to the available forensic evidence. They were asked to consider if the conclusions offered could have been strengthened had different protocols/procedures been used and if they found any conclusions that ventured beyond the limitations of the physical evidence and science. They were to consider elements such as: investigation/processing of the crime scene, evidence documentation, collection, and packaging; field tests/examinations; reports/testimony of all experts; autopsy findings as well as analysis of all other physical evidence.
In their final reports and presentations many of the students recognized that this type of case presented a very challenging situation for the investigators because all of the victims were closely associated with the suspect and the crime scene.
The students all felt that the crime scene processing and associated documentation were reflective of a different time period and that the processing of the scene would have been handled differently had the same incident occurred in 2011. The students noted the lack of scene security; insufficient documentation of personnel entering and exiting the scene, inadequate identification of location of evidence (bullet casings, guns, bloodstain patterns, shoe impressions) on the limited crime scene sketches; insufficient and non-informative photographs of the evidence (many were out of focus, taken from a distance, not adequately labeled ); and collection of evidence by officers who didn’t wear gloves or chose to smoke within the crime scene.
In reviewing the transcripts of the trial the students believed that the defense had raised some valid points concerning chain of custody of some of the evidence and they felt that under current circumstances items such as the bloodstained clothing of Tommy Zeigler would not have been admitted because of the handling and packaging of the evidence.
The students also observed that the testimonies of some of the witnesses exceeded their area of expertise and that the testimony lacked scientific foundation. Most concerning was the testimony of Dr. Herbert MacDonell. Called to testify as a bloodstain pattern expert, the students believed his testimony strayed well beyond what can be derived from bloodstain pattern analysis. The students did not find him to be a credible witness.
The vast majority of the students asserted that Mr. Zeigler’s case should be reviewed and that the on-going appeal is warranted.They felt that DNA testing on relevant items of evidence, such as the victims’ and suspect’s clothing, could shed informative light on the investigation. Some speculated that upon closer inspection of the evidence, Tommy Zeigler may be exonerated from the crime he was convicted of committing.
The PSU students were grateful for this opportunity to examine the information in the Zeigler case and they felt that it was an enlightening experience that helped them appreciate the complexities of crime scene reconstruction in a multiple homicide investigation.