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Penalty phase begins for Joseph Zieler, man convicted of killing two in 1990

Convicted of murdering Robin Cornell, 11, and Lisa Story, 32, in 1990
Joseph Zieler
Posted at 12:09 PM, May 23, 2023

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Joseph Zieler will soon find out if he will spend the next 25 years in prison or be sentenced to death for killing 11-year-old Robin Cornell and 32-year-old Lisa Story 33 years ago.

A jury listened to Jan Cornell, Robin's mother, who described Robin as a joy. She talked about how her daughter was funny, caring, and very loving to everyone including family, friends, classmates, and anyone who met her.

"We’ve lived in fear. We have lived in sadness. We miss them both," Jan said.

Randy Richards, Lisa Story's fiancé, also talked to jurors. He told them Story was happy with the way life was going and she was doing well at her job.

"Her impact across society was unbelievable," he said.

In the state's argument, it was testimony like this and photos the state displayed to the jury as to why they said Zieler should get the death penalty. They are putting forward four aggravating factors, which means there are factors that make the crime worse, calling for the death penalty.

  • The defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person.
  • The capital felony was committed while the defendant was engaged in felony burglary.
  • The capital felony was a homicide and was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification.
  • The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.

Jurors must come to a unanimous decision during this phase. They have to agree state attorneys proved the factors beyond a reasonable doubt. If they all agree, that's when only eight of the 12 jurors are needed to recommend the death penalty. This is because of a new state law in Florida, which was sparked by the sentencing of the Parkland shooter.
Ultimately it's still up to the judge to decide Zieler's fate, though the recommendation has to strongly be taken into consideration.

However, the defense has nothing to prove, besides trying to convince the jury Zieler's life should be spared. They brought in one doctor on Tuesday with another coming in on Wednesday.

Dr. Julie Harper, a psychiatrist, evaluated Zieler back in July 2022. She also spoke with several of his family members and others who knew him. They focused on his childhood first, discussing school and the type of home he grew up in.

"Joanne [Zieler's mother] didn’t demonstrate a lot of caring or loving behaviors," Harper said. "He was very frightened of his father."

The doctor went on to say because his father was abusive to Zieler's family members, it made Zieler's childhood complicated.

"This is a complicated person to grow up with when you’re supposed to be learning about rules of society and being frightened to break rules in the home because of the risk to yourself, so I think that makes him very confused regarding his father," Harper explained.

She also evaluated him mentally and later diagnosed him with major depressive disorder and mild neuro-cognitive disorder. The doctor spoke at several head injuries Zieler sustained from accidents and falling as a child.

In some of the tests, Harper said Zieler did not do well in attention in concentration, recognition memory, spatial processing, verbal fluency and reasoning and conceptual shifting. She even addressed in outburst in court last week.

"Talking on and on and not stopping when the judge directed him to do so, that's consistent with this low score on reasoning and conceptual shifting where he can't shift gears," she said.

On Wednesday morning, A neurologist testified on behalf of the defense during the penalty phase.

The doctor said Zieler has Parkinsonism, not Parkinson’s disease. This means it looks like the disease, but it isn’t and doesn’t respond to treatment.

The state is going into its rebuttal, followed by closing arguments.

It will then be in the hands of the jury for the recommendation.

The jury will recommend either death or at least 25 years in prison.

The judge will review the recommendation before handing down the sentence.