TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's highest court has delayed the execution of a condemned inmate, just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court found flaws in the way the state sentences people to death.
Florida's justices provided no reasoning for their decision Tuesday, but earlier in the day, they heard arguments from the state and an attorney for inmate Michael Lambrix, who told them the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should apply to all 390 people on death row.
"To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong," Martin McClain said.
Lambrix was scheduled to be executed Feb. 11. He was sentenced to death for the 1983 slayings of Clarence Moore and Aleisha Bryant. Prosecutors said Lambrix beat Moore with a tire iron and strangled Bryant after meeting the two at a bar and inviting them back to his trailer for dinner. The jury's death recommendation was not unanimous for either murder.
The U.S. Supreme Court found Jan. 12 that the state's sentencing procedure is flawed because it allows judges to reach a different decision than juries. Juries play only an advisory role in recommending death in Florida.
Judges have recommended death against the jury's recommendation in the cases of three of Florida's current death row inmates, state officials said. The last time it happened was 1999.
Lambrix's juries recommended death by an 8-4 vote for Moore's murder, and 10-2 in Bryant's.
Scott Browne of the Florida Attorney General's office argued Tuesday that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling should not apply to already-decided cases. He warned the court that allowing the ruling to apply to old cases would create chaos and suffering for victims' families in the state with the second-most death row inmates in the nation.
"That would be a catastrophic (decision), we have nearly 400 inmates sentenced to death. It would be an immense burden on judicial resources," Browne told the court. "These are tragic cases. To unsettle the expectations of victims' family members without any compelling provision is unwarranted."
Browne said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision should be treated the same as a related case out of Arizona. In that case, the court ruled not to apply it retroactively.
Justices appeared conflicted during the arguments about how to apply the ruling in Florida.
"There has to be something to the law that is beyond technicalities. One person is executed today, but the one that comes up tomorrow is not, and there really is no difference in their cases," said Justice R. Fred Lewis. "I'm struggling with the word games."
University of Florida Levin College of Law professor Teresa Reid, a death penalty expert, said she was not surprised by the Court's ruling. Many of the justice's questions indicated they are extremely concerned about whether and how Hurst should be applied to already-decided cases, she said.
"This stay and the detailed questions they asked counsel during Tuesday's hearing demonstrate they're carefully considering the arguments presented. They're not just rubber-stamping prior decisions," Reid said.
Meanwhile, Florida's Legislature has started to address the death penalty system.
Under one new proposal by the House, the jury would have to make a unanimous decision about whether aggravating factors warrant capital punishment, but they could also choose life in prison without parole.
Judges could only consider an aggravating factor that was unanimously found by the jury.
There is also growing support for another bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman that would require a unanimous verdict in order for there to be a death sentence.
"By no way is this a 100-percent finished product," Rep. Carlos Trujillo, chair of the House's Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said. "At some point we will have to reconcile both bills before it goes to the governor."
Dearen reported from Gainesville, Florida