Gerry Osborne in Death Row Letters
For more than a quarter of a century pensioner Gerry Osborne from Belfast has been writing to a man whom he considers to be a brother and a friend. They’ve never met.
Gerry’s friend is Tommy Zeigler, a death row inmate in Florida State Prison for the last 47 years. He is convicted of the quadruple murder of his wife, his wife’s parents and a customer at his family-owned furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida on Christmas Eve, 1975.
In a new season of BBC Northern Ireland’s True North films, True North: Death Row Letters, tells the story of the two men’s friendship through their letters.
Tommy first wrote to Gerry in March 1997 and they have been exchanging letters ever since. Over the years their correspondence has created a bond between the two men as they share details about their lives.
Since those first letters, there is now a frequent exchange of post between Belfast and Florida.
Gerry’s trans-Atlantic alliance has also captured the imagination of his community – with local people following the developing friendship over the decades and frequently enquiring about the latest updates from Gerry. The local postman also talks about his central role in the men’s friendship, delivering numerous letters and how he has seen Tommy become a central figure in Gerry’s life.
Gerry talks about how his connection with Tommy developed through their writing. Gerry’s stories have opened a window to a life outside of prison for Tommy with details of what is going on in the Belfast man’s life, from the everyday mundane to supporting Gerry after the death of his wife, Anne.
Tommy has claimed to be innocent since his conviction, and, through his letters, Gerry has become active in his friend’s case and what he sees as a fight for justice.
The film combines extracts from both men’s correspondence over the years alongside interviews with those at the centre of Tommy’s case as he seeks to prove his innocence. The film also reflects on the events of Christmas Eve 1975 and how the case unfolded, including the use of graphic murder scene photographs and reports from the time.
True North: Death Row Letters, on Tuesday 7 November at 10.40pm on BBC iPlayer and BBC One Northern Ireland, is one of three films in the latest True North season available on BBC iPlayer.
The other two episodes include:
True North: The Lottery Millionaire And The Spirit Of Belfast
Peter Lavery, a Belfast bus driver who won £10.2m on the lottery in 1996, looks back on the day that changed his life and races to finish the ambitious conversion of the Titanic Pumphouse, the first whiskey distillery in the city for 90 years. We also look back at his lottery win, what happened to him after that, and how he coped with the turmoil of going from earning £200 a week to suddenly becoming one of Northern Ireland's richest people overnight.
True North: Art Behind Bars
Stephen Greer served many years in prison for drugs, firearm and paramilitary offences. During his last term of imprisonment he started taking art classes - something that changed his life and outlook. Art Behind Bars follows Stephen as he returns to Magilligan for the first time since his release to help facilitate a new pilot scheme teaching art to prisoners. Will art transform their lives as it did his?