The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals last week held that William Ziegler, who was sentenced to death in Mobile County in 2003, must be given a new trial because the prosecution engaged in misconduct, his lawyers failed to provide adequate representation, and there were significant failures in the selection of the jury.
Despite the law requiring prosecutors to disclose to the defense any evidence that shows the defendant may be innocent or a State’s witness may not be credible, the Mobile County prosecutor did not turn over evidence that a key State’s witness falsely identified Mr. Ziegler as the man who threatened to kill the victim.
The prosecution also failed to turn over evidence showing the killing happened in a car belonging to the State’s only eyewitness — not in the woods, as the witness claimed and the State contended at trial. The witness was allowed to plead guilty to felony murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In addition to the prosecutor’s misconduct, Mr. Ziegler’s lawyer did nothing to represent him during a nearly 8-month period leading up to his trial — he took “no steps to investigate the crime, no steps to prepare a defense for Ziegler, and no steps to negotiate with the State or otherwise to advocate for his client.” The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the State’s argument that it was reasonable for the lawyer to believe another attorney was going to take over the case, noting that “no rule or holding . . . allow[s] an appointed attorney to abandon his client based on his mere assumption that another attorney had been retained.” Among other things, the court found Mr. Ziegler was prejudiced by not having counsel during this period because evidence critical to his defense – such as the crime scene – was lost, changed, or destroyed during this time.
Lastly, the trial court found that Mr. Ziegler did not have a fair jury because several jurors did not answer questions adequately during jury selection, including one juror who did not disclose that her cousin and her brother-in-law had been murdered before the trial.
Because Mr. Ziegler “would be entitled to a new trial if this Court were to affirm a single ground out of the dozens on which the circuit court granted relief,” the Court of Criminal Appeals did not address every issue. It affirmed the judgment of the circuit court that a new trial is required due to the denial of effective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and juror misconduct.