Monday 23 April 2018

Florida man yells ‘murderers!’ as he is executed for 1993 slaying

Two other men were due to be given the death penalty on Thursday.

Eric Scott Branch was put to death (Florida Department of Law Enforcement/AP)
Eric Scott Branch was put to death (Florida Department of Law Enforcement/AP)

By Jason Dearden, Associated Press

A Florida inmate convicted of raping and killing a college student decades ago screamed and yelled “murderers!” three times, thrashing on a stretcher as he was being put to death.

The governor’s office said Eric Scott Branch, 47, was pronounced dead at 7.05pm on Thursday after receiving a lethal injection at Florida State Prison.

Branch was convicted of the 1993 rape and fatal beating of University of West Florida student Susan Morris, 21, whose naked body was found buried in a shallow grave near a nature trail.

Just as officials were administering the lethal drugs that included a powerful sedative, Branch thrashed about on his stretcher and then yelled “murderers! murderers! murderers” before falling silent.

Moments earlier, he had addressed the prison officers in the room saying that, instead of them carrying out the death sentence, it should have been governor Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

“Let them come down here and do it. I’ve learned that you’re good people and this is not what you should be doing,” Branch told the officers.

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A vigil was held for Eric Scott Branch in Gainesville, as he was sentenced to death. (Lauren Bacho/AP)

Outside the prison, Herman Lindsey a former death row inmate who was exonerated in 2009, was part of a group protesting the death penalty.

“There’s no way to guarantee we’re not killing innocent people,” he said.

Evidence in the case shows that Branch approached Ms Morris after she left a night class on January 11, 1993, so he could steal her red Toyota and return to his home state of Indiana. He was arrested while travelling there.

In denying one of Branch’s appeals, the Florida Supreme Court noted that the crime was particularly brutal.

“She had been beaten, stomped, sexually assaulted and strangled. She bore numerous bruises and lacerations, both eyes were swollen shut,” the justices wrote.

Branch also was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Indiana and of another sexual assault in Panama City, Florida, that took place just 10 days before the fatal attack on Morris, court records show.

The jury in his murder case recommended the death penalty by a 10-2 vote under Florida’s old capital punishment system, which was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2016.

The high court said juries must reach a unanimous recommendation for death and judges cannot overrule that and Florida legislators subsequently changed the system to comply.

She had been beaten, stomped, sexually assaulted and strangled. She bore numerous bruises and lacerations, both eyes were swollen shut

One of Branch’s final appeals to the US Supreme Court involved whether he deserved a new sentencing hearing because of that jury’s 10-2 vote in his 1994 trial. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the new system of sentencing does not apply to inmates sentenced to death before 2002.

Branch claimed in a last-minute appeal that the Florida court’s decisions on which inmates get new sentencing hearings and which do not is unfair and arbitrary. In court documents, Branch’s lawyers say this prohibits about 150 Florida death-row inmates from having their sentences reviewed.

The US Supreme Court, without comment, rejected that appeal on Thursday and one other which Branch’s attorneys had filed.

Executions due to take place in Texas and Alabama were cancelled.

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, 38, was on death row for masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother at their suburban Houston home in 2003. Whitaker’s father, Kent, said he forgave his son, and the state parole board recommended that governor Greg Abbott commute the sentence to life in prison, with Mr Abbott granting clemency.

In Alabama, Doyle Lee Hamm was sentenced to die for the 1987 death of a motel clerk during a robbery. He has fought his death sentence, arguing there is a risk of a botched execution because of damage to his veins due to lymphoma and other illnesses. It was postponed after officials said there was not enough time to prepare the inmate before a death warrant expired at midnight.

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