A jury took about five hours Wednesday night to unanimously recommend death for Joseph Zieler in the case of the 1990 murders of 11-year-old Robin Cornell and her babysitter Lisa Story.
Robin and Story were asphyxiated and sexually assaulted. When Robin's mother arrived home about 4 a.m. May 10, 1990, she found their bodies in adjacent rooms of their shared Cape Coral apartment.
The case had gone cold before authorities got a DNA match in November 2016, linking Zieler to the crime. He was in custody, charged with assaulting his stepson.
On Wednesday evening, relatives and friends of Robin and Story sat in the front row on one side of the Lee County courtroom where jurors had heard testimony in the penalty phase of Zieler's trial. Two of Zieler's cousins, along with a friend of theirs, sat on the other side.
Jurors returned with a verdict shortly after 11 p.m.
Relatives of the victims cleared tears from their eyes and hugged one another. Relatives of Zieler looked down as Lee Circuit Judge Robert Branning read the verdict. Branning took a deep breath as he reviewed the verdict for proper format.
Zieler, however, showed no emotion.
"Now they can rest in peace," Jan Cornell, Robin's mother, said later.
State Attorney Amira Fox issued a statement Thursday afternoon.
"I hope the verdict and sentence recommendation have finally brought some sense of justice and closure to the families of Lisa Story and Robin Cornell," Fox wrote. "I want to thank them for their incredible patience and understanding as we all worked together to bring this case to closure over the years."
Fox also expressed gratitude for Cape Coral Police, who've announced their commitment to solving other cold cases.
For their part, Zieler's relatives in the courtroom expressed their sympathy with the victims' families.
"We're sorry the victims had to go through this," Zieler's cousin, Charleen Tobolski, told The News-Press.
Assistant State Attorneys Daniel Feinberg, Stephanie Russell and Abe Thornburg prosecuted the case. Zieler was represented by Lee Hollander and Kevin Shirley.
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The penalty phase in the capital murder trial for Zieler, 61, of North Fort Myers, began Tuesday with each side's arguments, followed by the testimony from those closest to the victims.
Feinberg alerted jurors the state would prove four aggravating factors in the slayings as prosecutors sought the death penalty. Those four factors were Zieler's criminal history, if the murders happened during another felony, the severity of the crime, and whether it was premeditated.
A jury took about three hours last week to convict Zieler of the murders.
Mental health experts say Zieler is competent
Earlier Wednesday, mental health experts testified, indicating Zieler is competent, a day after the victims' families told jurors about their losses.
Two mental health experts testified on Zieler's behalf while the state called another two.
Dr. Mark Rubino, a Naples neurologist testifying for the defense, confirmed Zieler suffered changes in behavior and memory loss after a 1998 motorcycle accident..
Zieler has sustained three separate concussions, Rubino said.
Rubino said he mostly relied on what Zieler had told him, citing the difficulty in verifying an injury he allegedly suffered as a child when he fell and hit his head in school.
Zieler refused to testify in his own defense during the penalty phase when Branning asked him. The state then called two more psychologists to testify.
Karim Yamout, a Bradenton-based clinical psychologist with a forensic and clinical practice, said he gave Zieler about 20 tests during three hours of testing.
Yamout, who testified on behalf of the state, said Zieler had no memory impairment, his problem solving skills were normal and that he controlled his emotions well.
Yamout added that Zieler showed symptoms of mental illness, compared to intellectual impairment. He identified a "minor" cognitive impairment.
He indicated the similarity between his results and the ones Julie Harper obtained. Harper, a forensic psychologist who testified Tuesday, said she spoke with Zieler, two of his cousins, his sister-in-law, his grandmother and a neighbor of his grandmother since he was charged with the crimes.
Harper, who testified Tuesday on behalf of the defense, found that Zieler struggled with concentration, but didn't repeat grades. She further testified she found him competent to stand trial.
Yamout said Zieler's injury from the motorcycle accident didn't qualify as traumatic brain injury, contrary to statements provided by the defense and other witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial.
Yamout alluded to no documented loss of consciousness when the 1998 crash happened and testified that Zieler didn’t receive special treatment while he was tested.
"Every once in a while there was a tremor," Yamout said.
Keegan Culver, who testified on behalf of the state and was the fourth psychologist to testify in Zieler's case, said that during his testing, Zieler confessed to exaggerating his symptoms "when convenient."
Those unrealistic symptoms invalidated a test Monday administered by Culver.
Culver also noted Zieler's tremors.
Prosecutors say killings were cold, calculated
Feinberg opened the closing arguments for the state, saying the slayings were cold and calculated.
"The killing of a person is severe, grave," Feinberg said as he held up photos of the victims. "The killing of two is more severe, grave."
Feinberg said each murder can be considered an aggravating factor.
"Who died first?," Feinberg asked, answering his own question by saying it didn't matter.
Feinberg said the state has proven that the murders happened during a burglary.
He explained their suffocation deaths each took between three and five minutes.
"This defendant coldly, calmly decided to kill both," Feinberg said, adding that he had to kill quietly so not to disturb the second victim.
"He coldly and calmly killed one, coldly and calmly killed the other," he said. Both were sexually assaulted.
He then referenced the purpose of laying the victims' photographs on the ironing board the night of the slayings, saying it's an indicator of premeditation. Testimony revealed photos of Robin and her sister were on an ironing board, set up for Jan Cornell to press her work clothes.
He said that Zieler ripped the clothing from both victims.
"It was supposed to be a safe space, and they were awoken by a stranger," Feinberg said.
Thornburg picked up the prosecution from Feinberg and advised the defense had listed 42 aggravating factors, asking jurors to give less weight to those.
"They are all so insignificant compared to the aggravators in this case," he said.
Defense asks to let Joseph Zieler live
Shirley said it’s unknown if the victims were assaulted while alive, adding that the medical examiner never investigated those details.
He said both weren’t killed at the same time.
"What makes the premeditation so exceptional in this case?" he asked, later answering his question, saying there was no premeditation involved.
Shirley said Jan Cornell, who had testified during the guilt phase of the trial as well as the first day of the penalty phase, had never met nor seen Zieler.
"So who was targeted?" he asked. Shirley later said the victims weren’t tortured.
Shirley addressed 42 mitigating circumstances listed in the jury instructions. They include his age and various health conditions.
"He’s on the twilight of his life, and he’s on his way downhill," Shirley said.
Shirley said all doctors and psychologists confirmed the tremors and that Zieler's brain had degenerated.
"Do you really want to sentence a 61-year-old man with mental health and all these other issues?," Shirley asked before he wrapped up his closing arguments.
Zieler faces a Spencer hearing on June 26, which will allow him to appeal the jury's decision directly to Branning.
Tomas Rodriguez is a Breaking/Live News Reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. You can reach Tomas at TRodriguez@gannett.com or 772-333-5501. Connect with him on Twitter @TomasFRoBeltran, Instagram @tomasfrobeltran and Facebook @tomasrodrigueznews.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Cape Coral cold case: Jury recommends death for Joseph Zieler