Florida Catholic bishops urge governor to spare life of death-row inmate

By Catholic News Service

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) — The Catholic bishops of Florida appealed to Gov. Rick Scott to spare the life of death-row inmate Eric Branch by commuting his sentence to a life sentence without parole.

Branch was scheduled to be executed Feb. 22 for his 1994 conviction of murdering Susan Morris, a college student, in 1993 when he was 21.

“It is our concern that the death penalty contributes to a growing disrespect for the sacredness of all human life,” Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Bishops, said in the letter to Scott. “It feeds on an underlying sense of vengeance in our culture and adds to a callousness or coarseness towards one another.”

The Catholic conference is the public policy arm of the bishops. Sheedy wrote the letter to Scott on their behalf. The text of the letter, dated Feb. 15, was released Feb. 19.

In the wake of the gun rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead, Sheedy wrote, “state-sanctioned killing does not deter or end violence, but instead it perpetuates a cycle of violence.”

A sentence of life without the possibility of parole is a severe punishment, keeps society safe from the offender and allows for the possibility of redemption, the state Catholic conference said in a news release about the letter to Scott.

According to news accounts and court records from his trial, Branch attacked Morris Jan. 11, 1993, as she walked alone to her car in a parking lot at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Branch dragged her to a nearby wooded area and beat her, strangled her and sexually battered her. He left her body in a shallow grave covered with dirt and leaves and stole her car to leave the state.

On Feb. 8, Branch appealed to the Florida Supreme Court to stay his execution, but a week later the court denied his appeal. He argued that his brain was not fully developed when he killed Morris, and he also claimed that during his trial for her murder, the jury was given false information about his conviction on other sex crimes.

Branch was convicted of sexual battery and beating a 14-year-old girl in Indiana in 1991. He also was convicted of another sexual battery he carried out 10 days before he killed Morris.

The Florida Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops said that Catholics and other members of the community planned to hold vigils around the state of Florida to pray for the victims of violent crimes, for those on death row and for an end to the use of the death penalty.

They also planned to offer prayers for Scott that he will commute Branch’s death sentence and stop his execution. 

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