FL v. Joseph Zieler: Daily Trial Updates

Posted at 6:00 AM, May 25, 2023 and last updated 8:23 AM, May 25, 2023


CAPE CORAL, Fla. (Court TV) — A jury has recommended the death penalty for a Florida man convicted in the cold case killings and sexual assaults of a girl and her babysitter.

The jury’s recommendation came one week after they found Joseph Zieler guilty of the May 1990 deaths of 11-year-old Robin Cornell and her babysitter, 32-year-old Lisa Story.

Following the penalty phase of the trial, the jury voted 10-2 for the death penalty after five hours of deliberations. They were unanimous on all four aggravating factors. A Spencer hearing has been scheduled for June 26.

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Photos of Robin Cornell (left) and Lisa Story (right) that were released by the Cape Coral Police Dept.

L to R: Robin Cornell, 11, and Lisa Story, 32, were found dead in their Florida apartment. (Cape Coral Police Dept.)

The bodies of Cornell and Story were discovered by Robin’s mother, Jan Cornell, 33 years ago.

According to Cape Coral Police Department, Jan had left Robin in the care of her roommate, Lisa. Upon returning home on May 10, 1990, she heard footsteps in her apartment, went inside and found an ironing board open with pictures of her daughter laid out. Jan proceeded to run upstairs where she saw Lisa’s body on her bed. She ran to Robin’s room where she found her daughter dead on the floor.

Police concluded that Robin and Lisa had been suffocated and sexually assaulted. Some items had been stolen from the apartment as well.

DNA was taken from the crime scene, and that evidence was retested and entered into a national database when new DNA technology emerged in the late 1990s.

The killer remained on the loose for over 30 years as the trail ran cold and investigators grew increasingly frustrated searching for clues.

A break came in 2016 when Zieler was arrested on August 27, 2016 for aggravated battery and assault against his son. His DNA was taken in that case, and matched the 1990 cold case.

Zieler, who is now 60, was indicted by a grand jury in November 2016. He was charged with first-degree homicide, sexual battery, and burglary.


DAY 6 – 5/25/23 – PENATLY PHASE

DAY 5 – 5/24/23 – PENALTY PHASE

  • Doctors testified to Joseph Zieler’s cognitive abilities and mental health
  • Zieler faces either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years
  • In order to sentence Zieler to death, jurors must unanimously agree that the state proved at least one aggravating factor. If they come to that agreement, they’ll have to determine how much weight to assign to the 42 mitigating circumstances presented by the defense
  • Among the proposed mitigators: Zieler’s age, his health, his childhood traumas, his cognitive disorder, and mental health
  • Zeiler sat at the defense table and declined to testify again
  • The highlight of the state’s closing was when prosecutor Dan Fienburg asked the jury to imagine what Robin Cornell was thinking while Zieler attacked her for the 60-70 seconds before she passed out and he smothered her to death
  • The highlight for the defense was when defense attorney Kevin Shirley passionately argued for jurors to spare Zieler’s life and described why the state didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the murders of Robin Cornell and Lisa Story were not cold, calculated or premeditated — or heinous, atrocious, and cruel

DAY 4 – 5/23/23 – PENALTY PHASE

DAY 3 – 5/18/23

DAY 2 – 5/17/23

  • Charles Richards, Lisa Story’s boyfriend, testified about their relationship, saying that her death broke his heart.
  • Karen McKay, formerly a forensic serologist, testified to the forensic samples that were tested in the case.
    • Robin’s sex assault kit tested positive for sperm.
    • During cross-examination, McKay was unable to say when the samples she tested had been left in the room.
  • James Pollack Jr., a crime lab analyst, testified that the DNA profile of sperm found on the bed sheet and pillowcase did not match the standards submitted.
  • A juror was removed from the case after repeatedly falling asleep during testimony.
  • Kristi Jo Ellis, a detective with the Cape Coral Police Department, testified as the jury was shown a video of police interrogating Zieler in 2016.
  • Deputy James Divens with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office testified that when he interviewed Zieler he did not say anything about issues with his memory, and told the deputy that he had been with his partner, Bonnie, for 25 years.
  • A videotaped deposition from Michelle Boyer, a DNA analyst, was shown to the jury.
  • Zieler’s defense attorneys filed an objection and alleged evidence tampering after hairs were potentially missing from folded paper in evidence.

DAY 1 – 5/16/23