Jurors in southwest Florida have recommended the death penalty for a man convicted of killing an 11-year-old girl and her babysitter more than 30 years ago. The recommendation came following a trial in which Joseph Zieler yelled at the jury and made vulgar gestures while he was on the witness stand.
The Lee County jury voted 10-2 in favor of death for Zieler on Wednesday night after about five hours of deliberations, according to court records. The same panel found Zieler, 60, guilty last week of two counts of first-degree murder.
A judge will make the final decision in whether Zieler will be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison following a June 26 hearing. Florida law had previously required a unanimous jury recommendation for a convicted murderer to face the death penalty, but a new law signed last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis requires only an 8-4 vote in favor of execution.
Zieler was jailed on an unrelated assault charge in 2016 when his DNA matched to the cold-case murders of Robin Cornell, 11, and Lisa Story, 32, authorities said.
The girl and the woman were found in a Cape Coral apartment in May 1990, officials said. Robin’s mother had been out for the night and discovered the suffocated bodies when she returned the next morning. Investigators said both victims were sexually assaulted.
Cape Coral is about 100 miles south of Tampa.
CBS affiliate WINK-TV reported that Zieler stunned the courtroom when he claimed he had slept with Cornell’s mother a few months before the murder.
“I thought the only way my DNA could have got there was from me sleeping with Jan Cornell,” he said. Then he called Cornell a pig: “She’s calling me a rapist and a murderer, and I’m calling her a pig because she doesn’t wash her sheets.”
WINK-TV also reported that Zieler screamed at the jury and made vulgar gestures while on the stand.
“I mean, everyone’s talking about the finger,” his attorney, Lee Hollander, said. “His conduct on the stand did not help. If you’re in a hole, stop digging. That’s what I wanted to say right then and there.”
Hollander continued: “I’m back behind counsel table. And he’s up in the in the witness chair. And it was like, sitting down watching a train wreck.”
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