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Death penalty recommended for Joseph Zieler, Florida man who murdered girl and babysitter in 1990

Jurors in southwest Florida have recommended the death penalty for a man convicted more than 30 years ago of killing an 11-year-old girl and her babysitter. The recommendation came after a trial in which Joseph Zieler yelled at the jury and made vulgar gestures while on the witness stand.

The Lee County jury voted 10-2 for Zieler’s death Wednesday night after deliberating about five hours, according to court documents. The same panel last week found Zieler, 60, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

A judge will make the final decision on whether Zieler will be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison after a hearing on June 26. Florida law previously required a unanimous jury recommendation for a convicted murderer to face the death penalty, but a new law passed last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis only requires an 8-4 vote for execution.

Zieler was jailed in 2016 on an unrelated assault charge, when his DNA matched the cold-case murders of Robin Cornell, 11, and Lisa Story, 32, authorities said.

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The girl and woman were found in May 1990 in an apartment in Cape Coral, officials said. Robin’s mother had been gone overnight and discovered the suffocated bodies when she returned the next morning. Police say both victims were sexually assaulted.

Cape Coral is located about 100 miles south of Tampa.

CBS affiliate WINK-TV reported that Zieler stunned the courtroom when he claimed he slept with Cornell’s mother a few months before the murder.

“I thought the only way my DNA could get there was if I slept with Jan Cornell,” he said. Then he called Cornell a pig: “She calls me a rapist and a murderer, and I call her a pig because she doesn’t wash her sheets.”

WINK-TV also reported that Zieler yelled at the jury and made vulgar gestures in the stands.

“I mean everyone is talking about the finger,” said his lawyer, Lee Hollander. “His behavior on the witness stand didn’t help. If you’re in a hole, stop digging. That’s what I wanted to say then and there.”

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Hollander continued, “I’m back at the council table. And he’s in the witness seat. And it was like watching a train wreck.”

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