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Branch v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

February 15, 2018

ERIC SCOTT BRANCH, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee. ERIC SCOTT BRANCH, Petitioner,
v.
JULIE L. JONES, etc., Respondent.

         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Escambia County, Edward P. Nickinson, III, Judge - Case No. 171993CF000870XXXAXX And an Original Proceeding - Habeas Corpus

          Robert S. Friedman, Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Stacy Biggart and Kathleen Pafford, Assistant Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Northern Region, Tallahassee, Florida; Billy H. Nolas, Chief, and Kimberly Sharkey, Attorney, Capital Habeas Unit, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant/Petitioner

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Charmaine M. Millsaps, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Lisa A. Hopkins, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee/Respondent

          PER CURIAM.

         Eric Scott Branch, a prisoner under sentence of death with an active death warrant, appeals a circuit court order summarily denying his second successive motion for postconviction relief filed pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851 and petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), (9), Fla. Const. For the following reasons, we affirm the circuit court's denial of the motion and deny the habeas petition.

         FACTS AND RELEVANT PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Branch was convicted of first-degree murder, sexual battery, and grand theft in connection with the killing of Susan Morris. Branch v. State (Branch I), 685 So.2d 1250 (Fla. 1996), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1218 (1997). We described the facts of the murder on direct appeal as follows:

Eric Branch was wanted by police in Indiana and because the car he was driving, a Pontiac, could be traced to him, he decided to steal a car from the campus of the University of West Florida [(UWF)] in Pensacola. When Susan Morris, a young college student, approached her car after attending an evening class [on] January 11, 1993, Branch accosted her and stole her red Toyota. Morris's nude body was found later in nearby woods; she had been beaten, stomped, sexually assaulted and strangled. She bore numerous bruises and lacerations, both eyes were swollen shut, and a wooden stick was broken off in her vagina.

Id. at 1251-52. The jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of ten to two, and the trial court followed that recommendation. Id. at 1252. The trial court found the existence of three aggravating factors[1] and four mitigating circumstances.[2] Id. at 1252. On direct appeal, we affirmed Branch's convictions and sentences. Id. at 1253. In 2006, we affirmed the circuit court's denial of Branch's initial motion for postconviction relief and denied his initial petition for writ of habeas corpus. Branch v. State (Branch II), 952 So.2d 470, 473 (Fla. 2006).

         Branch subsequently filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Branch v. McDonough (Branch III), 779 F.Supp.2d 1309 (N.D. Fla. 2010). The federal district court denied the petition, but issued a limited certificate of appealability. Id. at 1330. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the judgment denying federal habeas corpus relief. Branch v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr. (Branch IV), 638 F.3d 1353, 1356 (11th Cir. 2011).

         In 2016, we affirmed the circuit court's denial of Branch's motion for postconviction DNA testing filed pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.853 and section 925.11, Florida Statutes (2015). Branch v. State (Branch V), No. SC15-1869, 2016 WL 4182823 (Fla. Aug. 8, 2016). On January 22, 2018, we affirmed the circuit court's denial of Branch's first successive motion for postconviction relief. Branch v. State (Branch VI), No. SC17-1509, 2018 WL 495024 (Fla. Jan. 22, 2018).

         On January 19, 2018, Governor Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Branch and scheduled his execution for February 22, 2018. On January 29, 2018, Branch filed his second successive motion for postconviction relief, raising two claims. First, Branch contended that because he was twenty-one years old at the time of the murder, [3] executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution based upon Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). In Roper, the United States Supreme Court held that executing individuals who were under the age of eighteen at the time of their crimes is prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 578-79. Branch asserted (1) there is an emerging consensus in the medical community that the brain continues to develop through the mid-twenties, such that young adults are cognitively comparable to juveniles, and this consensus constitutes newly discovered evidence; (2) a national consensus has developed that individuals who were in their late teens and early twenties at the time of their crimes should not be executed; and (3) the criminal laws of other states and international law generally reflect that offenders who were in their late teens and early twenties at the time of their crimes are treated differently than older offenders. Branch additionally contended that the physical, emotional, and sexual trauma he suffered during his childhood and young adulthood, coupled with substance abuse, further impaired and delayed his brain development. Branch's second claim was that the length of time he has spent on death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

         On February 1, 2018, the circuit court denied Branch's motion without an evidentiary hearing and denied Branch's application for stay of execution. This appeal follows. Branch also filed with this Court a motion for stay of execution and a successive petition for writ of habeas corpus, challenging the prior violent felony aggravating factor found by the trial court.

         ANALYSIS

         Public Records Requests

         Branch first challenges the circuit court's denial of his requests for public records pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.852. We have explained:

[The] denial of public records requests are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. See Dennis v. State, 109 So.3d 680, 698 (Fla. 2012); Diaz v. State, 945 So.2d 1136, 1149 (Fla. 2006). "Discretion is abused only when the judicial action is arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable, which is another way of saying that discretion is abused only where no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court." State v. Coney, 845 So.2d 120, 137 (Fla. 2003) (quoting White v. State, 817 So.2d 799, 806 (2002)). The Court has long acknowledged that the public records procedure under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.852 "is not intended to be a procedure authorizing a fishing expedition for records unrelated to a colorable claim for postconviction relief." Valle [v. State, 70 So.3d 530, 549 (Fla. 2011)] (quoting Moore v. State, 820 So.2d 199, 204 (Fla. 2002) (quoting Glock v. Moore, 776 So.2d 243, 253 (Fla. 2001))).

Muhammad v. State, 132 So.3d 176, 200 (Fla. 2013). A defendant "bears the burden of demonstrating that the records sought relate to a colorable claim for postconviction relief." Chavez v. State, 132 So.3d 826, 829 (Fla. 2014) (citing Mann v. ...


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