TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Attorneys for a condemned Florida inmate asked the state's highest court on Tuesday to delay his execution while the justices determine how to properly apply a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Florida's death penalty system unconstitutional.
Martin McClain, an attorney for inmate Michael Lambrix, told Florida's Supreme Court that last month's ruling should apply to Lambrix's and all 390 already-decided death penalty cases.
"To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong," McClain said.
Lambrix is 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.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 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 that 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 said the Hurst ruling should not apply to already-decided cases, and wants the state to execute Lambrix as scheduled. He warned the court that allowing the Hurst 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 inmate 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.
Some justices appeared conflicted about how to apply the Hurst ruling in Florida. The court did not issue a ruling Tuesday.
"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 some of the justice's questions indicated they are extremely interested about whether and how Hurst should be applied to already-decided cases.
"I think the court understands that our sentencing scheme is different from (Arizona's), and therefore it's not a slam dunk that the same analysis would apply in Florida," Reid said.
Meanwhile, Florida's Legislature has started to address how to fix the death penalty statute. The Senate held a committee workshop last week while the House's Criminal Justice Subcommittee will meet on Tuesday.
There is growing support for a bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman that would require a unanimous verdict in order for there to be a death sentence.