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Top FL Court Schedules Death Penalty Arguments

Florida Supreme Court
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Florida Supreme Court has refused to grant a stay in an execution scheduled for next month, but ordered oral arguments to hear about the potential impact of a seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision last week striking down the state's death penalty sentencing structure.

Lawyers for Cary Michael Lambrix, a convicted murderer who has been on Death Row for more than three decades, had asked the court to indefinitely postpone the execution, scheduled for Feb. 11, after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last Tuesday in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.

That 8-1 decision found that Florida's method of using juries to recommend death sentences, but giving judges the power to impose the sentences, is an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

Tuesday's ruling focused on what are known as "aggravating" circumstances that must be found before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determination of such aggravating circumstances be made by juries, not judges.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court set oral arguments in Lambrix's case for Feb. 2, and instructed lawyers from both sides to "be prepared to address the applicability of Hurst v. Florida ... including whether Hurst is retroactive, the effect of Hurst given the aggravating factors in Lambrix's case, and whether any error is harmless."

Lawyers for Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the court to deny Lambrix's request for oral arguments, saying his case should not be affected by the Hurst decision because it should not be applied retroactively.

In an 84-page brief filed Friday, Bondi's lawyers argued that the Hurst ruling was not applicable because Lambrix's 1984 conviction came before the decision in Ring v. Arizona.

Lambrix was convicted of killing Aleisha Bryant and Clarence Moore in Glades County in 1983. According to court documents, Lambrix met the couple at a Labelle bar and invited the pair to his mobile home for a spaghetti dinner.

Lambrix went outside with Bryant and Moore individually, then returned to finish the dinner with his girlfriend. Bryant's and Moore's bodies were found buried near Lambrix's trailer.

Lambrix was originally scheduled to be executed in 1988, but the Florida Supreme Court issued a stay on that execution. A federal judge lifted the stay in 1992.

Lambrix has argued that his lawyers were ineffective, that he suffers from PTSD and that the trial court erred in denying DNA tests for a tire iron, Bryant's clothing and a shirt wrapped around the tire iron. Lambrix contends that Moore sexually assaulted Bryant and killed her and that Lambrix killed Moore in self defense.

In Friday's filing, Bondi's lawyers, Scott Browne and Suzanne Bechard, called Lambrix's request for the DNA tests "a transparent delay tactic."

Lawyers for Lambrix argued that the case against the disabled veteran was entirely circumstantial.

"There were no eye witnesses, no physical or forensic evidence identifying Lambrix as a killer, and no confession by Lambrix" that supported his double-murder conviction, his lawyers wrote in the Jan. 11 request for oral arguments.

Lambrix, now 55, also argued that the decades he has spent on Death Row violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishments.

"Mr. Lambrix has endured thirty-one years of mental torture waiting for the day in which the State will kill him. Wondering if that day will come? Now that day has come. Mr. Lambrix knows the exact date and time that his life is set to expire. But the mental torture does not end there," his lawyers wrote.

The state's lawyers also rejected that claim.

" ... Lambrix has been doing everything in his power to avoid or delay his execution by the State of Florida. Any complaint now that the process, which he has used to his advantage to delay his execution, took too long, is plainly frivolous," they wrote.