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2017 The David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Death Denied

About the Project

Last year, we at The Medill Justice Project spent days rifling through stacks of boxes containing thousands of musty old records—some 40 years old—as part of our investigation of the case of William Thomas “Tommy” Zeigler, a Florida death row inmate who has waited four decades to be executed for four murders he maintains he didn’t commit.

Weeks after reviewing the records, we traveled to Orlando to track down and interview those who remember the horrific 1975 crime: Zeigler’s trial attorney, the original prosecutor, the lead detective and a shackled and imprisoned Zeigler, among others. We also interviewed two witnesses who called into question Zeigler’s guilt but whose accounts never made it into the trial.

Separately, our story examined the ballistics evidence and found it pointed away from Zeigler. We also released a seven-episode podcast series offering a rare behind-the-scenes look at our investigation. Episodes include class strategy sessions, extended cuts of interviews with key subjects and students’ reactions as they search for the truth.

Throughout, students at The Medill Justice Project faced unique obstacles as the only known journalism enterprise in the world where university students in a class under their professor examine murder cases and other miscarriages of justice and publish their findings for the world to see—and inspect.

That students are at the forefront of our journalism gives us no leniency; what we do is of the utmost seriousness—these are life and death matters—and we encountered stiff resistances from various quarters: Lawyers threatening legal action. Prosecutors playing hardball. Defense attorneys refusing to tell us anything. We’ve had doors shut in our faces. But, through hard-nosed shoe-leather reporting, digging for documents and tracking down elusive sources, we’ve persisted.