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Court Orders Innocent Verdict For ‘Soldier of The Year’

December 22, 1989 GMT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered an innocent verdict for a former Army ″Soldier of the Year″ sentenced to die in the 1978 murder of a young Walt Disney World worker.

The court, in a unanimous ruling, said there was insufficient evidence to convict Robert Craig Cox, 30, a former Army Ranger. The ruling vacated Cox’s death sentence, reversed his conviction and ordered the trial court to acquit him of all charges.

″The state showed the possibility that he might have been one of several people who could have done it. That’s not enough in a criminal case,″ said Larry B. Henderson, an assistant public defender in Daytona Beach who handled Cox’s appeal.

Henderson and the state attorney general’s office said it was rare for the Supreme Court to order an innocent verdict. Usually, the court sends such cases back for new trials or sentencing hearings.

″We may ask them to rehear it,″ said Richard Doran, the prosecutor in the case. ″For a court to reverse a case and direct an aquittal is very rare. Within my memory, there’s been maybe one or two cases where that’s happened since the death penalty was reinstated″ in 1976.

Cox was convicted in 1988 of the killing 10 years earlier of Sharon Zellers, 19. She disappeared after leaving work Dec. 30, and her badly beaten body was found several days later in an orange grove near Orlando.

Police questioned Cox, who was in central Florida visiting his parents, but brought no charges. He became a suspect because he was staying in a motel adjacent to the grove and part of his tongue had been bitten off the night before, indicating a possible struggle.

The case went unsolved for a decade. In the meantime, Cox was named the Army’s ″Soldier of the Year″ in 1979, Henderson said, and took part in the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

In 1986, Cox ran into trouble in California and pleaded guilty to kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to nine years in prison and dishonorably discharged from the Army.

Florida authorities then charged Cox with Ms. Zeller’s murder, and he was convicted in 1988. Cox contended throughout that prosecutors had only circumstantial evidence, and on Thursday the Supreme Court agreed.

The state’s case hinged on hair, O-type blood and a boot print found in the victim’s car. Expert testimony about the hair and blood type, while saying both could be linked to Cox, was not conclusive, the court said.

Cox’s boots were never compared with the print found in Ms. Zeller’s car, the court said, the missing piece of tongue was never found and no witnesses had seen the two together.

″Circumstances that create nothing more than a strong suspicion that the defendant committed the crime are not sufficient to support a conviction,″ the justices wrote.

Henderson said Cox would likely be transferred from death row at the Starke prison to Orange County, where a formal aquittal hearing would be held. Cox then would go to California to finish serving his prison term there, he said.