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United States v. Zeiler

decided: December 14, 1972.


Staley, Van Dusen and Max Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Rosenn


MAX ROSENN, Circuit Judge.

William Edward Zeiler appeals his convictions for three bank robberies after a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Three eight-and-one-half year sentences, to be served concurrently, were imposed. On this, his third appeal to this court, Zeiler challenges the competency of witnesses who identified him at the time of the trial as the perpetrator of one of the robberies because of their exposure to: (a) extensive pretrial publicity identifying him as the robber, and (b) photographs of him, seen in the absence of defense counsel. We reject both of these contentions and affirm the convictions.

Zeiler was originally arrested in June 1967 as a suspect in a series of bank robberies. Following a hearing at which he unsuccessfully attempted to suppress identification testimony because of the pretrial publicity, United States v. Zeiler, 278 F. Supp. 112 (W.D.Pa.1968), Zeiler was tried and convicted in two separate trials, one for the Carrick bank robbery, United States v. Zeiler, 296 F. Supp. 224 (W.D.Pa.1969), and one for the Oakland and Bloomfield bank robberies (unreported).

We considered appeals from both trials in United States v. Zeiler, 427 F.2d 1305 (3d Cir. 1970), (Zeiler I). The Carrick robbery conviction was reversed because photograph displays shown to witnesses had been unduly suggestive. The Bloomfield and Oakland robbery convictions were also reversed, with instructions for the district court to determine before retrial whether photograph displays shown to the witnesses had been unduly suggestive. After a hearing, the court suppressed all identifications in the Oakland and Bloomfield robberies. The Oakland robbery suppressions were not appealed, but we reversed the suppression of identifications by the Bloomfield witnesses in United States v. Zeiler, 447 F.2d 993 (3d Cir. 1971), (Zeiler II). Adhering to the rulings of this court, at the retrial now being appealed, the Government introduced no eyewitness identifications in connection with the Carrick and Oakland robberies. Witnesses to the Bloomfield robbery, however, did make in-court identifications of Zeiler.

The claim that the Bloomfield witnesses were incompetent to testify because of unduly suggestive photograph displays deserves little comment. In Zeiler II, we considered the precise issue now appealed. At that time we found an independent origin for in-court identifications. We see no reason to reverse our holding now. The court was careful upon retrial to restrict witnesses to incourt identifications and to exclude testimony about photograph display identifications. Our instructions were followed explicitly.*fn1

Thus, the only real issue in this appeal is the nettlesome question of whether witnesses who have been exposed to extensive pretrial publicity identifying the defendant as the culprit should be disqualified from testifying as to the defendant's identity. We did not meet this issue in either Zeiler I, 427 F.2d at 1308 n.4, or Zeiler II, 447 F.2d at 996.

The district court refused to suppress eyewitness identifications because of pretrial publicity both at a suppression hearing, 278 F. Supp. 112 (1968), and on motion for new trial after the Carrick bank robbery conviction, 296 F. Supp. 224, 227-229 (1969). We did not meet the pretrial publicity issue on the first appeal because we found the witnesses' testimony tainted by the photograph displays. Zeiler I, 427 F.2d 1305. We did not reach the publicity issue with respect to the Oakland and Bloomfield robberies in Zeiler I because there was inadequate evidence concerning identification procedures. In Zeiler II this court once again did not meet the publicity issue, although stating "we do not find the witness' in-court identifications to have been tainted by the publicity. . . ." 447 F.2d at 996-997.

Confronted for the first time with the necessity of ruling on the pretrial publicity issue, we must review the facts. Following a five year series of bank robberies, Pittsburgh police mounted an extensive search for the "commuter bandit." Sketches of the robber were widely circulated. When Zeiler was arrested and brought into the Federal Building on June 23, 1967, press and television photographers were on hand. Pictures were taken both in the basement parking area and on the thirteenth floor. Zeiler's picture was shown on the three major television stations in Pittsburgh and appeared in both major newspapers. This publicity indicated that appellant was allegedly the elusive "commuter bandit."

Appellant contends that the prosecuting authorities encouraged and assisted the news media. He notes that cameramen were waiting at the Federal Building when he arrived in official custody. He testified at trial that one of the officials leading him into the Federal Building said to the photographers:

Hey, let's give these other guys a chance here. Let's slow up a little bit and let them get a good picture -- give them a chance. . . . They have to make a living, too.

Three of the four witnesses to the Bloomfield robbery saw pictures of Zeiler's arrest on television and in the newspapers; the fourth saw the arrest on television alone. All four witnesses testified at the suppression hearing that upon seeing Zeiler's picture they knew this was the man they had seen robbing the Bloomfield bank. The four witnesses discussed the news reports among themselves prior to viewing Zeiler in a photograph display and at a line-up.

The competency of the eyewitness identifications is challenged on two grounds: (1) federal and local officials aided the news media in publicizing photographs of the arrest and (2) the media viewings ...

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