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Double murderer elbows attorney in face — then is sentenced to death

A man convicted of killing an 11-year-old girl and her babysitter more than three decades ago has been sentenced to death by a judge in southwest Florida. The sentencing came not long after Joseph Zieler elbowed his own attorney in the face in the courtroom, CBS affiliate WINK-TV reported.

Last month, 10 out of 12 jurors recommended that Zieler be sentenced to death after about five hours of deliberations, according to court records. The same jury previously found Zieler, 60, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the 1990 murders of 11-year-old Robin Cornell and 32-year-old Lisa Story.

Before the sentence was officially handed down, Zieler appeared in court with his wrists shackled, WINK-TV reported. Video shows him call over attorney Kevin Shirley, who leaned forward to listen to something he assumed Zieler was going to whisper to him. Instead Zieler flung his elbow up and struck the side of Shirley’s head, the video shows.

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Two bailiffs immediately tackled Zieler to the ground and escorted him out of the courtroom.

Shirley told WINK-TV he was fine after the incident.

“I had no idea he was going to do something like that,” he said. “Obviously he’s been planning on that. But as he was going down, he said he was sorry he missed.”

The outburst and sentencing came after a trial in which Zieler yelled at the jury and made vulgar gestures while he was on the witness stand.

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

The girl and the woman were found in a Cape Coral apartment in May 1990, officials said. Robin’s mother had been out for the night and discovered the suffocated bodies when she returned the next morning. Investigators said both victims were sexually assaulted.

Cape Coral is about 100 miles south of Tampa.

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

“I thought the only way my DNA could have got there was from me sleeping with Jan Cornell,” he said.

WINK-TV also reported that Zieler screamed at the jury and made vulgar gestures while on the stand.

“His conduct on the stand did not help,” his other attorney, Lee Hollander, said. “If you’re in a hole, stop digging. That’s what I wanted to say right then and there.”

Hollander continued: “I’m back behind counsel table. And he’s up in the in the witness chair. And it was like, sitting down watching a train wreck.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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