Towards saving Tommy: from the horse’s mouth; Orlando Sentinel’s coverage was “dastardly.” [updated: FU, @orlandosentinel]

May 4, 2003

Re. Tommy Zeigler

To Whom It May Concern:

To Tommy Zeigler and to the state of Florida, I can only apologize unofficially for the dastardly role The Orlando Sentinel played in the pathetically wrongful conviction of Mr. Zeigler for murder.

I was not the editor-in-chief of The Orlando Sentinel when the four brutal murders took place and when the trial took place and the appeal process began. I came along in 1981 and served as the paper’s editor and vice-president until June 1985. But during my tenure, thanks to a local (Orlando) lawyer named Bill Duane, I became closely acquainted with the case, examined whatever evidence was available, read miles of transcripts, and became convinced that Mr. Zeigler was innocent. A brilliant lawyer, Mr. Duane did pro bono work for Mr. Zeigler early in the appeals process.

I further became overwhelmingly convinced that biased journalism — indeed, some of the most reprehensibly sloppy, inattentive, arrogant journalism I have ever seen — on the part of The Orlando Sentinel (then called the Sentinel Star) contributed greatly from Day One to the circumstances of Mr. Zeigler’s conviction.

The Sentinel spent no time trying to cover the case with a hard eye on the defendant’s story. Tommy Zeigler’s “guilt” was assumed and he was treated as guilty in the local press, and therefore all or most all of local media. The Sentinel’s reporter on the case and top editors played footsy with Orange County prosecution officials and police, taking their every word as official. This letter would be long indeed if I were to cite every instance that Sentinel coverage of Mr. Zeigler’s nightmarish plight left the public thinking these horrible murders on Christmas Eve amounted to an open-and-shut case.

Tommy Zeigler never stood a chance. The newspaper virtually said so.[emphasis added]

Now look what has been uncovered! Now look what the DNA says! Now look how Mr. Zeigler’s story makes perfect sense, while the original convictions and subsequent appellate decisions are shockingly careless! Now look what this man has undergone, what price he has paid, having served more than two decades of his life on Florida’s Death Row. The Orlando Sentinel should have raised a voice early on. It should have looked into such a dramatic and unlikely event from the get-go. Instead, the Sentinel sort of waved it all as a fait-accompli. Unofficially, I apologize on the paper’s behalf. During my time on the job, however, and for years after when I left the paper to run newspapers in Dallas, Houston, Oakland and San Francisco, I continued trying to help Mr. Zeigler in any way I could.

For example, I asked a friend and former colleague, Phillip Finch, an author, to examine the case for the purpose of writing a book. He did, and wrote “Fatal Flaw,” a terrific book that outlines the incredible flaws in the slipshod, amateurish investigation. The book did not sell well — for a variety of reasons. One big one is The Orlando Sentinel panned it, and someone at the paper kept the book from being reviewed by their affiliated newspapers, such as the parent Chicago Tribune. I apologize unofficially for that, as well. I was sickened by it. [emphasis added]

Additionally, I was able to see to that the Atlanta Constitution ran a series of articles on the case that presented the views of Mr. Zeigler’s lawyers, and this at the time may have been of some value to the appeals court in Atlanta which made a ruling that kept Tommy alive. To this day, The Sentinel continues its cover-up and ostrich-like attitude toward poor Tommy Zeigler. I am confounded by it, haunted even. When Tommy walks out of prison, I’d wager a bundle The Sentinel won’t have the guts to put the picture and story on the front page where it belongs.

I suppose that is politics in Orange County. If so, it is vile stuff. During my time as editor in Orlando, I frankly paid no attention to “politics as usual in Orange County,” as those pressures might sway coverage. I threw out the “as usual” part. We had only two things to do as a newspaper — get it right and be fair. We did neither, historically, in Mr. Zeigler’s case. It was shameless, rotten, inhumane, cowardly and dishonest. Just downright gutless. I will stand up in any forum and say the same. I would swear to it, if need be.

Just as four human beings died tragically, violently, stupidly and needlessly, Tommy Zeigler has been made to live a monumental injustice.Only a small band of tireless and courageous believers with whom I have become indirectly associated fought in Mr. Zeigler’s behalf. Except for this group, and his mother, who died last year, Tommy virtually has stood alone. Was The Sentinel’s poor performance in fact part of some conspiracy? I am not sure. Perhaps it was incompetence more than anything. That, plus City Hall and Courthouse power — people in public office trying to look good, with The Sentinel too lazy to check out at all the facts.

I believe what I have said here to be the truth. I believe Tommy Zeigler to be innocent (not guilty) of the aforementioned murders. I believe The Orlando Sentinel to be guilty of the ugliest kind of journalism. Now that the scientific blood evidence is in, and says what many of us figured out long ago — that Tommy is innocent of all charges — I hope that justice in his behalf finally will be done. This terrible outrage must end.

If this letter reaches Governor Bush’s desk, I beseech you, sir, to set Mr. Zeigler free because he IS innocent.

Meanwhile, the real killer still lives, some of us close to the case believe. Thank you for your time.


David Burgin

Former Editor-in-Chief, 1981-1985 The Orlando Sentinel



Sadly, what David Burgin describes in the way of Orlando Sentinel reporting continues to this day. In this century, four (4) Orlando Sentinel reporters put their names on an article that claimed John W Dobbs IV committed a racially motivated homicide on a black man. John is black. The four (4) or more burly men who attacked John (and his girlfriend, also black) were not black. John, too, was convicted of homicide … he was not allowed to claim standard self-defense or Stand Your Ground. This travesty preceded Trayvon Martin’s murder, which happened about twenty miles away, as the crow flies.


Update 12/7/18: The Orlando Sentinel published another dastardly deceptive article about Tommy today – headlined as “Commentary,” although written by a reporter – which untowardly endorsed a sensationalized series about Tommy’s frame-up recently regurgitated by the formerly great Tampa Bay Times. (It was so damn bad that its opening sentence should have been “It was a dark and stormy night.”) Perhaps some visuals will help former Sentinel editor David Burgin and author Phillip Finch  rest in peace temporarily during the holiday season, and finally get Tommy (and John Dobbs) their FIRST FAIR DAY IN A FLORIDA COURT, so that they can each be freed. I’ve added emphasis to illustrate that it’s par for the course for the Orlando Sentinel to just publish whatever public servants tell them, and that this isn’t the first time that the Orlando Sentinel played footsie with another newspaper to help keep the truth of Tommy’s frame-up buried. I’ve also added pictures of Tommy and John, with to-the-point comments. Both men killed in self defense; both men had defensive wounds. Tommy was shot; John was sliced and diced. Orange/Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala would best serve her constituents by asking the new Conviction Integrity Unit to look at both cases immediately.
Tommy Zeigler

Tommy Zeigler is white. He irritated Jim Crow whites in his community (particularly the judge who presided over his trial and overrode the jury’s “life” decision and imposed the death penalty) by advocating for the rights of local blacks – voting rights, and rights to conduct business, uninterrupted.

John Dobbs is black/ too black to be mistaken by four (4) reporters as being anything else. Nor could four (4) reporters have mistaken John’s many defensive wounds as offensive, had they honorably dislodged themselves from their chairs and phones and left the office.

About Susan Chandler

Now-disabled interior/exterior designer dragged into battling conviction corruption from its periphery in a third personal battle with civil public corruption.
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15 Responses to Towards saving Tommy: from the horse’s mouth; Orlando Sentinel’s coverage was “dastardly.” [updated: FU, @orlandosentinel]

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