A True Story of Malice and Murder in a Small Southern Town
by Phillip Finch
It is a murder mystery. Five people shot in a dark building on Christmas Eve: four dead, one wounded in the abdomen, and a guilty man among them. A set piece fit for Poirot, but with the horror of real death and real blood lust.
The killer was described as cunning. The proof of this was his convoluted murder plot, developed over half a year. He was also depraved: he beat his last victim so violently as to fracture the brain pan within his skull, spraying blood across ceiling and walls and furniture.
We are also told that a dogged police detective ferreted the truth out of the labyrinth of clues. This feat was said to be a triumph of inspired procedure.
I began to study the Winter Garden murders in early 1991, when the case was fifteen years old. I interviewed the principals in the investigation, the prosecution, and the defense, and Tommy Zeigler himself. But recollection can be faulty after so long a time. In important matters, memory tends to be conveniently (if innocently) self‑serving. I decided that I could not in good faith rely on interviews to re‑create the story; the events remain too controversial, and feelings still run too high. I accepted the word of others when they spoke of their impressions or their state of mind. On controversial matters, where I have used the memory of others, it is noted. But whenever I could, I took the story from what might be called the extended record: not only transcripts and briefs, but photographs in evidence, affidavits, correspondence, and investigators’ work notes. Throughout my research I tried to resist conclusions. Although conclusions became inevitable, I based them solely on what the documentation showed. So it is in this work. I withhold my opinions until the end, and when they do appear they are founded almost exclusively in the formal public record.
That record consists of more than six thousand pages of sworn testimony and hundreds of supporting documents and photographs: an impressive artifact that time has not altered. It is perfectly accessible, a story waiting to be told. Amazingly, the case has remained almost unknown, while less spectacular murders‑‑and less intriguing murderers‑‑have become notorious.
To at least one of the lawyers who became involved, the case became nothing less than a reflection on American life and American justice. It touches matters of race and intolerance and judicial ethics. It raises essential questions about how crimes are investigated, how cases are prosecuted, how verdicts are obtained. It illuminates the vast gulf between what is legal and what is just.
The case is far from dormant. As this is written, in the spring of 1992, several legal issues still are unresolved. Moreover, the actual events of the crime remain uncertain. A trial verdict decided the legal issue of guilt, but did not end the debate about what actually happened in the W. T. Zeigler Furniture Store during two hours of Christmas Eve in 1975.
The record tells the story of the crime, to the extent that anyone except those who were actually involved knows it. It is the foundation of this story. But a paper trail has limits; I was certain that after fifteen years, after an investigation and a prosecution and a trial and a long series of appeals, the record contained nothing new. Surely every facet had been well examined and fully comprehended. If the truth was still being debated after so much time, I could not expect to come any closer to the ultimate solution of the mystery.
But I was wrong.