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Trial in slaying of student begins

The blood of a slain college student was on the boots of an Indiana man accused of raping the victim with a stick and beating her to death, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Prosecutor Michael Patterson said in his opening statement at the trial of Eric Scott Branch that testimony on DNA testing would prove the blood was that of Susan Morris, 21.

Her nude and battered body was found in woods at the University of West Florida on Jan. 13, 1993, two days after she failed to return to her parents' Pensacola home from a night class.

" "Badly beaten' does not adequately describe her condition," Patterson said. Patterson, who was sworn in as U.S. attorney for Northern Florida in January, returned to state Circuit Court to prosecute Branch, fulfilling a promise to the victim's parents. He had been assigned the case as an assistant state attorney before his federal appointment.

Defense attorney John Allbritton exercised his right to delay an opening statement until after the prosecution rests its case.

Later Tuesday, jurors were shown photographs of the victim's body, found by a police dog.

"The evidence will be technical and voluminous," Patterson had told the 12 jurors and two alternates.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Branch, 22, of Rockport, Ind., would be sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair or imprisoned for life without parole for at least 25 years.

Branch was released by mistake from an Indiana prison two months before the slaying. He first went to Panama City Beach, where he is accused of raping a woman 10 days before Ms. Morris was killed.

Testimony will show Branch came to Pensacola Jan. 9 and met another West Florida student, Melissa Cowden, who spent that night with him in a motel, Patterson said. They spent the next day together and Branch stayed the night in Ms. Cowden's dormitory room.

They were supposed to meet in a campus lounge at 7 the night of the slaying, but Ms. Cowden was unable to find Branch and did not see him again until about 11 p.m. in her dormitory room, Patterson said.

Ms. Morris was last seen walking toward a remote parking lot about 8 p.m.

Branch left early the next morning, Patterson said. He also is accused of stealing Ms. Patterson's car and was seen driving one matching its description in Destin and Panama City Beach, Patterson said.

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