|Cary Michael Lambrix|
The Florida Supreme Court issued a stay Tuesday hours after lawyers for Cary Michael Lambrix argued more time was needed to review his case in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring the state's death penalty law unconstitutional.
A unanimous 6-0 court issued the stay "pending further order of this court." Lambrix, 55, faced execution Feb. 11 for murdering two people at his LaBelle trailer in 1983. Justice Peggy Quince, who once worked on the Lambrix case as a prosecutor, was recused.
The two-paragraph order gave no indication where the court might be headed in reviewing the law affecting 390 death row inmates. State lawmakers are at work on an overhaul in response to a Jan. 12 U.S. Supreme Court decision throwing into question the legitimacy of the judge-driven way Florida sentences capital defendants to death.
The court must decide whether the high court's decision in Hurst v. Florida should cover everyone on death row, only those convicted since a key 2002 ruling or fewer.
The state attorney general's office maintained Hurst was a narrow, procedural ruling that does not extend to retroactive application.
"This court would stick out like the proverbial pink elephant" if it held otherwise, Senior Assistant Attorney General Scott Browne argued.
Comparing Hurst to Furman v. Georgia, the landmark that produced a four-year moratorium on capital punishment in the 1970s, he said the state conceded then there was "no prospect of a constitutional death penalty in Florida." Therefore, death sentences became life sentences.
"This is not the situation before the court" because the death penalty statute isn't completely invalid, Browne said. "It can be fixed; it will be fixed," referring to bills in play in Tallahassee.
"These are horribly tragic cases," Browne said. "To unsettle the expectation of victims' family members in that manner without any compelling reason is unwarranted."
Miami criminal defense attorney Bruce Fleisher, who handles death penalty cases but is not involved in Lambrix's appeal, suggested the court issued the stay knowing if they didn't, the U.S. Supreme Court would.
Representing Lambrix, veteran capital defense lawyer Martin McClain of Wilton Manors responded to Browne in his rebuttal. "The compelling justification is the Florida statute has been declared unconstitutional," he said.
"To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong," he said. He asked the court to enter a stay of Lambrix's execution that would allow additional briefing on how far should reach to upend the state's capital punishment system. The stay did not mention additional briefing.
He listed death row inmates whose nonfinal cases "will get the benefit of Hurst" going forward. If Lambrix and other condemned prisoners aren't treated the same, McClain suggested a related issue will surface: the arbitrary manner in which cases decided the same faulty way have different outcomes. This is the Eighth Amendment concern that underlies the Furman v. Georgia ruling.
McClain struck a chord with Justice Fred Lewis, who seemed preoccupied with the idea of fairness or proportionality in sentencing.
Source: Daily Business Review, Noreen Marcus, February 2, 2016