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Jury recommends death penalty for man who killed girl and her babysitter in Cape Coral

Joseph Zieler killed 11-year-old Robin Cornell and Lisa Story in May 1990
Joseph Zieler
Posted at 11:03 PM, May 24, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. — A jury has recommended the death penalty for Joseph Zieler, the man who killed two people in a Cape Coral home 33 years ago.

This recommendation comes on day two of the penalty phase in Zieler's trial. Because of a new law, only eight jurors, rather than 12, are needed to recommend the death penalty. In this case, 10 jurors voted in favor of a death penalty recommendation while two recommended at least 25 years in prison. However, the judge is still in charge of sentencing Zieler. Judge Robert Branning must put heavy weight on the jury's recommendation. He can also sentence Zieler to at least 25 years in prison with the possibility of parole.

Zieler was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder on May 18. He murdered 11-year-old Robin Cornell and 32-year-old Lisa Story on May 10, 1990.

During closing arguments, state prosecutors argued aggravating factors they had to prove to constitute the death penalty as an option. They claim the killings were targeted and Zieler could've made the decision to stop killing Robin and Lisa, but didn't.

"What was Robin Cornell thinking at that moment? Get out of here, who are you? There's a pillow over my face, it's getting dark. I can't breathe. Why is this guy touching me? Get off of me, leave me alone," said Dan Feinberg, the state attorney explaining what Robin Cornell was potentially thinking the night of the killings.

Meanwhile, the defense fought for Zieler's life. Doctors claim he has traumatic brain injuries and cognitive impairment, among other disabilities.

The defense said some mitigating circumstances include Zieler's age, medical diseases, and mental health disabilities.

It's factors like these the defense wanted jurors to take into consideration, asking the jury if they really want to sentence a 61-year-old man with mental health issues to death.

"Mr. Zieler does not deserve for you to forget what happened, but Joseph Zieler does deserve your forgiveness," said Kevin Shirley, Zieler's attorney. "This is not that special case that requires you to vote for death. Do what you need to save Mr. Zieler's life."

For two days, jurors heard from family members of Cornell and Story. They also listened to hours of testimony from doctors, who evaluated Zieler.

Neurologist Dr. Mark Rubino for the defense diagnosed Zieler with Parkinsonism, which shows symptoms of Parkinson's, but isn't that disease and doesn't respond to treatment. Rubino said he has cognitive impairment.

"He has significant cognitive impairment, he has a movement disorder that this not Parkinson’s disease, but it is Parkinisom," Rubino said.

However, state prosecutors questioned a psychologist, Dr. Karim Yamout, who did several tests on Zieler. He later diagnosed him with mild neuro-cognitive impairment.

"Even though that impairment is executive functioning, I wouldn’t even say that whole domain is impaired," Yamout said. "It’s very subtle, mild subsections of a subsection of his cognitive function. Everything else is normal."

Despite Rubino saying he has a traumatic brain injury, Yamout completely disagrees. He says Zieler doesn't meet the prongs to truly diagnose him with it.

This is the second death penalty case in the state since the new law passed in April. The first case happened in Marion County where jurors voted unanimously for death. However, in this case, it's the first one where jurors did not vote unanimously but were still able to recommend death.

Ultimately, it's still up to the judge to decide Zieler's fate, though he must take the jury's recommendation into high consideration.

A pre-sentence investigation for the case will be held on June 26 at 1:30 p.m. where Judge Branning will sentence Zieler.

Fox 4 will keep you updated on the case as new information is made available.

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