Killer of UWF student seeks stay of execution

Scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 22, Death Row inmate Eric Scott Branch is asking the Florida Supreme Court for a stay of execution while he appeals a high-profile legal issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Branch, who filed a motion for a stay Wednesday, was sentenced to death in the 1993 sexual assault and murder of University of West Florida student Susan Morris. Gov. Rick Scott last month scheduled Branch’s execution for Feb. 22. But in the motion for a stay, Branch’s attorneys wrote that he will base his appeal on arguments related to a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. A subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty. But the Florida Supreme Court made the new sentencing requirements apply to cases since June 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that was a premise for striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

Branch and dozens of other Death Row inmates who were sentenced to death before the Ring decision argued that the new unanimity requirements should also apply retroactively to their cases. But the Florida Supreme Court has rejected those arguments.

In the motion for a stay, Branch’s attorneys wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court “will be inundated in the coming months” with challenges to the Florida Supreme Court’s refusal to apply the new sentencing requirements to inmates such as Branch.

“A stay of execution by this (Florida Supreme) Court here may also avoid needless last-minute stay litigation in this and other cases in the United States Supreme Court and is consistent with the widely-accepted judicial policy that lower courts enter stays of their decisions pending review by a higher court,” the brief said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, however, filed a response Thursday asking the Florida Supreme Court to reject the stay.

source: The News Service of Florida