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Eric Branch Florida Death Row

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Eric Branch was executed by the State of Florida for the murder of a college student in 1993. According to court documents Eric Branch kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered college student Susan Morris. Eric Branch would be executed by lethal injection on February 23, 2018

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Convicted murderer Eric Branch used his final moments before he was executed to make a political statement, falling into unconsciousness as he shouted “murderers” between blood-curdling screams on the execution gurney.

The state of Florida carried out the execution of Branch, 47, on Thursday evening at the Florida State Prison in Raiford — roughly 335 miles from where he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed University of West Florida student Susan Morris as she was leaving a night class in January 1993.

Branch, who was on death row for nearly 25 years, was pronounced dead of a lethal injection at 6:05 p.m. Central Standard Time.

After Morris’ family, officials and media entered the execution chamber’s witness room at about 5:30 p.m., a nondescript brown curtain was raised to reveal Branch, restrained and largely covered with a white sheet.

He appeared wide-eyed and shuffled beneath the leather straps and mitten-like hand covers that held him in place.

He was vocal in his final minutes, choosing to use them to make a political statement.

“My last statement is for you guys,” he said, directing his attention to the team warden and two other officials standing beside him in the execution chamber. “I ask you to step out of line of duty and not participate in this. The governor wishes to be senator, and Pam Bondi wishes to be governor. Let them come down here and do it. I’ve learned that you are good people and this is not what you should be doing.” Bondi is the Florida Attorney General.

The team warden announced that with those final words, the preparation phase was complete and the execution would begin.

An anonymous executioner, chosen by the team warden and paid $150, began injecting the lethal mix of etomidate, bromide and potassium acetate through an IV line from behind a long curtain.

Branch’s screams immediately began pulsing through the room as he repeatedly yelled the word “murderers” and violently thrashed on the gurney.

Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said after Branch’s death that his screams were not the result of the controversial lethal injection drugs, and the procedure was carried out according to protocol. She said his screams began only seconds after the first drug began moving through the IV line. That was confirmed independently by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, she told reporters.

At some point during Branch’s yelling, shaking and thrashing, his glasses fell. Then, so too did his chest.

The team warden shook Branch to ensure he had lost consciousness, and the second two drugs coursed through the line.

His chest remained moving, slowly rising and falling, until Branch became still and was pronounced dead at 6:05 p.m. A physician entered the room to check for a pulse with a stethoscope, and he used a flashlight to check Branch’s eyes before marking the official time.

Branch spent his final hours Thursday morning meeting with his daughter, according to FDC. At around 9:30 a.m., he ate a last meal of a pork chop, a T-Bone steak, French fries, a bottle of ginger ale and two pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. He refused a spiritual adviser and was restless Wednesday night, according to FDC.

His execution marked the end of a decades-long wait for justice for the Morris family. Wendy Morris Hill sat in the front row of the witness room with her husband and daughter to watch the man who killed her sister die.

The family remained stoic, showing no sign of emotion even as Branch stared directly at them moments before death.

Afterward, they spoke to the media about Susan’s life and legacy.

“Twenty-five years ago, Susan’s life was suddenly and brutally extinguished,” Morris Hill said to media following the execution. “We have grieved for her longer than she was with us. Yet because of who she was, because of the difference she made, she will never be forgotten by those who love her.”

The murder of 21-year-old Morris shook the Escambia County community for days as authorities tried to find the missing woman. Once they made the grim discovery of her body on Jan. 13, 1993, the manhunt for her killer began.

Branch was mistakenly released from a work-release facility in Indiana in November 1992, before the completion of his sentence, according to the Evansville Courier & Press archives. The mistake happened when an employee from the county clerk’s office failed to forward a judge’s order to the work release center’s officials.

He was convicted in Indiana on counts of forgery, theft and sexual battery. Branch fled to Florida to see a cousin in the Panama City area, where he raped another woman and again fled, this time to Pensacola.

Multiple court documents and archives state he spent a weekend on the UWF campus and found Morris walking to her car in an empty parking lot days later.

She was abducted from the red Toyota Celica she had bought with her own money from working in a video store. She had always promised her sister, Morris Hill, that she would teach her to drive a stick in that same car. That never happened.

“The lives of so many of us would’ve been different had Susan been allowed to live,” Morris Hill said to reporters. “My grandparents lost the company of Susan in their twilight years. Because of the tragic nature of her death, no one who loved Susan had a chance to tell her goodbye. Susan had a boyfriend whom she loved, they lost the chance to pursue their relationship. She lost the chance to live her life.”

She later added: “As relieved as we are that the legal process has now concluded, nothing will bring Susan back.”

Morris Hill spoke of the numerous judges, attorneys, prosecutors and law enforcement officials who comforted, consoled and helped the family find justice over the last 25 years.

Those officials prayed with the Morris family, aggressively pursued Branch’s conviction, and continued to fight for the death penalty through a multitude of appeals.

In his final weeks, Branch’s counsel argued his constitutional rights had been violated repeatedly, based on everything from the way his body was positioned during execution to new studies on juvenile brain development and maturity. Branch claimed his execution was unconstitutional based on the argument that a new Florida law that requires juries unanimously recommend death should be retroactively applied to him. His conviction and the jury’s 10-2 decision to recommend the death penalty came eight years before the new law’s retroactivity cut-off date.

He ultimately appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A group of former judges, Florida Supreme Court justices, psychologists and other professionals filed “friend of the court” briefs before the court supporting Branch’s arguments in the last two weeks.

The decision on whether or not to stay his execution was up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the high court denied the stay at 5:30 p.m., allowing the execution to continue.

Branch’s execution was one of three scheduled to take place Thursday across the country. A Texas inmate, Thomas Whitaker, was issued a last-minute clemency Thursday evening, halting his scheduled execution, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-minute bid to stop the execution of Alabama inmate Doyle Hamm at 9 p.m., and the execution was expected to move forward at that time.

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