This undated photo made available by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows Eric Scott Branch in custody. Florida is scheduled to execute Branch Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, for raping and killing a college students in 1993, so he could steal her car. (Florida Department of Law Enforcement via AP)

Florida to execute man in 1993 slaying of college student

February 22, 2018 - 11:38 am

STARKE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is preparing to execute a man convicted of raping and killing a college student in 1993 so he could steal her car.

Barring a last-minute stay, 47-year-old Eric Scott Branch will be put to death by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Thursday at Florida State Prison.

Branch was convicted of the 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.

Evidence in the case shows that Branch approached Morris after she left a night class on Jan. 11, 1993, so he could steal her red Toyota and return to his home state of Indiana. He was arrested while traveling 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 was also 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 U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. The high court said juries must reach a unanimous recommendation for death and judges cannot overrule that. Florida legislators subsequently changed the system to comply.

One of Branch's final appeals to the U.S. 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 Florida Supreme Court denied a stay of execution in the Branch case on Feb. 6, leaving him with only limited appeals in federal courts.

Executions are also scheduled to take place Thursday in Texas and Alabama.

Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, 38, is on death row for masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother at their suburban Houston home in 2003. Whitaker's father, Kent, says he forgives his son, and the state parole board recommended that Gov. Greg Abbott commute the sentence to life in prison. But Abbott is free to let the death sentence be carried out.

In Alabama, Doyle Lee Hamm is sentenced to die for the 1987 death of a motel clerk during a robbery. But Hamm is fighting his death sentence, arguing there is a risk of a botched execution because of damage to his veins due to lymphoma and other illnesses.

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