Eric Scott Branch was mistakenly released for his previous sexual battery conviction from the Vanderburgh Community Corrections Complex on Nov. 1, 1992 — five months early.
PANAMA CITY — It took only 10 days for Eric Scott Branch to progress from raping a Bay County woman to raping and killing an Escambia college student. But it would take more than 20 years for his fate to be sealed.
Branch, 46, received his death warrant Friday from the state of Florida. He has been condemned to death for more than two decades for the rape and strangulation of 21-year-old University of West Florida student Susan Morris, which was the culmination of a series of sexual batteries. And despite attempts to use recent changes to Florida’s death penalty procedure to his advantage, Branch now is scheduled for execution at 6 p.m. Feb. 22 — about two weeks after his 47th birthday.
Almost 25 years ago, a series of Branch's sexual batteries reached a deadly crescendo. He had only recently been released from an Indiana prison for the 1991 sexual battery and beating of a 14-year-old girl when he moved to Bay County.
On New Year’s Eve 1993, Branch offered to take a local woman home from a Panama City Beach nightclub after a night of celebration, according to court records. Instead of driving her home, though, Branch took her to a condo where he held her against her will, attacked her and then began to sexually assault her.
The woman later tearfully testified at length before a grinning Branch that he forced her to engage in sexual intercourse before sodomizing her with a flashlight.
"When I started screaming, he stuck his fingers down my throat and ... he ripped and gouged a large canal area in my mouth,'' she testified. "I thought I was going to die. I thought I was never going to see my family again.''
The woman said Branch only stopped after she told him she had been sexually abused before.
“He went from having this crazed look to back to, if you can call it, normal,” she told the jury. “He said, 'Let me help you get dressed.' He said, 'I'm sorry that it happened to you before.'"
Branch then drove the woman home and returned to the condo. When deputies came knocking on his door in the hours that followed, Branch fled out a window. Court records show he was in search of a car to steal in order to flee the state 10 days later when Morris was leaving an evening class at the University of West Florida.
Branch attacked Morris in a parking lot Jan. 11, 1993, and dragged her into a nearby wooded area, where he severely beat her face and head, strangled her, sexually battered her and left her body in a shallow grave. Branch then stole her car but was arrested in Indiana days later.
Court records show Branch should have been in jail when both crimes were committed, but he was mistakenly released for his previous sexual battery conviction from the Vanderburgh Community Corrections Complex on Nov. 1, 1992 — five months early.
Branch has been on death row since 1994, when an Escambia County jury recommended death in a vote of 10-2, according to state Supreme Court records.
In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law that mandates a jury unanimously recommend the death penalty in capital punishment cases. The revised legislation came after a local case, Hurst v. State, in which defendant Timothy Hurst claimed the 10-2 jury split in his case was unconstitutional. Since that ruling, several death row inmates from across the state have pushed for new penalty phases.
Branch’s last attempt to avoid the death penalty sputtered out Oct. 17 after he did not respond to the Florida Supreme Court’s request for him to show why it should not affirm a trial court decision to proceed with the death penalty. His arguments were heard in Escambia County Court, where prosecutor John Molchan, of the 1st Judicial Circuit, argued at the time that Branch does not fall under the new law because his case was decided so long ago.
"(Branch's counsel) had filed an amended motion thinking he should get relief under the Hurst ruling," Molchan said. "We took the position that based upon prior decisions that the court has made, he's not eligible for that ... The Hurst case is not retroactive for him."
Branch then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court after the trial court sided with Molchan. However, he did not respond to the court’s request for him to explain why that decision should not be affirmed.
Branch's death warrant was issued amid the pending disposition.
“The record has been reviewed and there are no stays of execution issued by any court of competent jurisdiction in this case,” Attorney General Pam Bondi wrote. “Based upon the above-referenced summary of litigation affirming the judgements and sentences of death imposed for first-degree murder, the record is legally sufficient to support the issuance of a death warrant.”