Motion denied for UWF killer sentenced to death

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Three other local criminals on Death Row also had their appeals denied.

Staff report and state wire

It appears the scheduled Feb. 22 execution of Eric Scott Branch, convicted of the 1993 murder of a University of West Florida student, will proceed as planned.

Branch’s appeal of his death sentence was denied Monday by the Florida Supreme Court, according to a statement issued by the First Judicial Circuit’s State Attorney’s Office.

An original motion had been filed by Branch contesting the validity of a jury’s 1997 death penalty recommendation that resulted from a 10-2 vote in favor of execution. The state has since changed the law so that a unanimous jury vote is required for a death sentence to be ordered.

Branch’s appeal was one of 10 from Death Row inmates the Florida Supreme Court rejected Monday. The Supreme Court’s release of 10 nearly identical rulings at the same time was a somewhat unusual move. But each of the cases involved inmates challenging their death sentences because juries did not unanimously recommend execution.

Circuit Court Judge Edward P. Nickinson originally denied the Branch motion. The Supreme Court on Monday affirmed Nickinson’s decision.

Three other inmates who committed local crimes also had their death sentence appeals denied Monday, including Ernest D. Suggs in a Walton County case, Frank A. Walls in an Okaloosa County case, and Daniel Jon Peterka in an Okaloosa County case.

The other inmates were Pressley Bernard Alston in a Duval County case, Kayle Barrington Bates in a Bay County case, Donald Bradley in a Clay County case, Marvin Burnett Jones in a Duval County case, Harry Franklin Phillips in a Miami-Dade County case, and Jason Demetrius Stephens in a Duval County case.

Authorities say Branch attacked Susan Morris in January 1993 as she walked to her car at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Branch dragged Morris into a nearby wooded area, where he beat, strangled and sexually battered her. Branch then left Morris’ body in a shallow grave and stole her car to flee the state.

Branch had been previously convicted for the 1991 sexual battery and beating of a 14-year-old girl in Indiana. He was also convicted in Bay County for another sexual battery that he had committed 10 days before killing Morris.

Gov. Rick Scott signed Branch’s death warrant last Friday.

The Florida Supreme Court found that Branch’s sentence of death was final in 1997. The court concluded that the Hurst decision, which helped bring about the unanimous standard now applied in Florida courts, did not apply retroactively in the case.

“After reviewing Branch’s response to the order to show cause, as well as the State’s arguments in reply, we conclude that Branch is not entitled to relief,” the Supreme Court opinion said.

Hurst relief refers to cases, Hurst v. State and Asay v. State, which held that non-unanimous jury recommendations of death violate the Florida state constitution and the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The courts have ruled that the unanimous jury standard should apply to new death penalty cases and to older cases in which the direct appeal process was final on or before June, 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Ring v. Arizona case, according to the non-profit

First Circuit Asistant State Attorney John Molchan said the court’s decision to reject 10 appeals in a single day made it clear that justices remain steadfast in their decision not to review cases decided before 2002.

The ruling in the Walls case holds significance, Molchan said, in that it frees up the First Judicial Circuit to proceed to a hearing of a Walls motion claiming that an intellectual disability precludes him from being executed.

Walls was convicted in 1988 for the murders of Edward K. Alger and Ann Louise Peterson.  In 1994, already on death row, he pleaded no contest to the 1987 stabbing of Audrey Gigi and later admitted to killing two others, 19-year-old Tommie Lou Whiddon in 1985 and 24-year-old Cynthia Sue Condra in 1986. 

His claim that he is mentally retarded is the last to be heard of nine arguments Walls presented years ago in an effort to prove he received ineffective legal representation at his 1988 murder trial. It was determined at one point that his IQ was 72, which is only slightly higher than the former standard of 70 once used in Florida to determine whether an inmate was competent to be put to death. Other arguments presented state Walls IQ at the time he committed the murders attributed to him hovered in the 100 range.

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