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Joseph Zieler's fate in double murder trial now in the hands of a jury

Joseph Zieler
Joseph Zieler
Posted at 2:15 PM, May 17, 2023

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — The fate of Joseph Zieler now rests in the hands of the jury. He's accused of raping and killed 32-year-old Cape Coral babysitter Lisa Story and 11-year-old Robin Cornell.

In a bombshell of events on Thursday, Zieler took the stand and maintained his innocence during a half hour testimony. The defense started their questioning first, asking Zieler where he was when the murders happened. Zieler claimed to be in Maryland.

During his interrogation with Cape Coral detectives, he asked them about the death penalty, which the defense questioned him about. Zieler claimed we was being facetious because he knew they arrested the wrong person.

One of the most contested topics: DNA found at the scene. Prosecutors say the bodily fluids on the victims matched Zieler's DNA, which investigators collected after his arrest in 2016 for an unrelated charge. However, Zieler said it was not possible for his DNA to be there.

He later stated he had an intimate encounter with Jan Cornell, Robin's mother, back in December 1989. However, she denies ever meeting or seeing him.

"The three defenses of Joseph Zieler: Was it, it wasn't me. It was my kinda sometimes dad or my brother," said state attorney Stephanie Russell. "Or was it I was in Maryland, it couldn't be me. Or number three, maybe it was maybe I slept with Jan or some other lady I read about in state's discovery somewhere and that's how semen ended up on an 11-year-old girl who happened to be murdered."

When prosecutors questioned Zieler, things got heated. They pushed him on everything including DNA, where he was when the murders happened and why Zieler wrote letters to the little girl's mother.

Out of nowhere, Zieler had an outburst on the stand. He pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket, showing it to jurors. Judge Robert Branning immediately ask the bailiffs to get the jury out of the courtroom.

Branning then yelled at Zieler for his actions and behavior, where he could've been found in contempt.

Prior to that Zieler made a derogatory gesture at what appeared to be our news cameras as both sides talked to the judge privately.

The state called Jan Cornell back to the stand, asking her if she had ever met Zieler or any had relations with him — answering no to both questions.

Early Thursday, several DNA experts were also called by state attorneys. It's DNA Zieler has wanted retested several times since his arrest, which the state says they did.

Lab technicians who ran the DNA said the chance of the DNA found on a bed sheet not being his in one in 83 quintillion.

Zieler's ex-girlfriend, Bonnie Kniceley, also testified, and state attorneys played excerpts of a jailhouse phone call they had where Zieler said, "I’m worried about the other thing that we talked about in the past." However, she claimed she did not know what he was referring to.

There were emotional moments for her. Prosecutors discussed one similarity between Kniceley and Cornell. State attorneys asked her about intercourse with Zieler, stating Cornell was found in the same manner as how Kniceley described intercourse with Zieler.

Kniceley choked up during these questions and others. She later read a letter from Zieler from jail where he talked about being violent and "I can’t help what transpired before I met you."

The defense asked the judge twice for an acquittal, but it was denied both times.

If convicted, Zieler could face the death penalty. With the new state bill that's been signed into law, only eight jurors need to vote for the death penalty.

Fox 4 Vault: 1990 Cape Coral Murders

VAULT | 1990 Cape Coral Murder