TALLAHASSEE — The state Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked next week's execution of a death row inmate, adding more uncertainty to a Florida death penalty system already in turmoil because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Hours after a hearing, justices granted a stay of execution to Michael Lambrix, 55, who has been on death row since 1984 after being convicted of the murders of two people in Glades County at a second trial.
Lambrix's execution, scheduled for Feb. 11, is now postponed indefinitely while justices decide his fate and that of 388 other death row inmates in the aftermath of a decision by the nation's highest court.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 12 that Florida's death penalty sentencing law is unconstitutional because a jury can only recommend punishment to the judge, who makes the critical fact-finding decisions.
In an 8-1 ruling in the case of Pensacola murderer Timothy Lee Hurst, the justices said all defendants are entitled under the Sixth Amendment to trial by jury, so death penalty decisions should be made by juries.
"I welcome this stay," said Lambrix's lawyer, Martin McClain of Fort Lauderdale. "I thought the court should take some time and should not decide the questions that arise out of Hurst on an ad hoc basis."
A key question is whether the Hurst decision can be applied retroactively to inmates on death row. That could mean new appeals in hundreds of death penalty cases — a scenario that Attorney General Pam Bondi's office said would be "catastrophic" for the justice system and for families of victims.
But Lambrix's lawyer, McClain, proved more persuasive Tuesday.
"To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong," McClain told justices as he argued that the Hurst decision requires Lambrix's sentence to be reduced to life without parole.
McClain wants a full evidentiary hearing before the state Supreme Court, which remains a possibility because justices denied that part of his motion "without prejudice."
Bondi's office cited the needs of crime victims.
"To unsettle the expectations of victims' family members in that manner without compelling justification is clearly unwarranted," Assistant Attorney General Scott Browne told justices. "That's not a legally tenable position."
Browne noted that state Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, in an earlier case, ruled that a related U.S. Supreme Court death penalty case, Ring vs. Arizona, could not be applied retroactively in Florida.
"We can be wrong," Lewis replied. "We have to be big enough to admit it."
Lambrix, a U.S. Army veteran, has said he did not kill Aleisha Bryant at his trailer in rural LaBelle in 1983, and that the other victim, Clarence Moore, assaulted and killed her before he killed Moore in self-defense.
The victims' bodies were found buried in a shallow grave near Lambrix's trailer.
His first trial ended in a mistrial. The governor who signed Lambrix's first death warrant, Bob Martinez, left office in 1991.
Lambrix has unsuccessfully appealed his conviction seven times, and his lawyers have argued that his legal rights have repeatedly been denied, such as his request for a DNA analysis of the victims' clothing and of a tire iron that prosecutors said was used as a murder weapon.
Lambrix met with one of his lawyers, William Hennis III, for an hour Tuesday. But Hennis said he didn't know about the stay of execution until he had left the prison and was in a parking lot, where he said he relayed the news to prison officials.
Lambrix's son, Michael Lambrix Jr., 33, of Holland, Mich., who visited him for three days in prison last month, said his father would have mixed feelings about his execution being delayed.
"He would take it both good and bad," the son said. "He would be happy about getting a stay, but feels that his claim to innocence is still being overlooked."
Deciding Lambrix's fate could be further complicated because Justice Peggy Quince recused herself from the deliberations because she was involved in the case as an assistant attorney general in the 1980s.
Quince's absence creates the rare possibility that the other six justices could be deadlocked 3 to 3 on whether to reschedule Lambrix's execution or lift his death sentence. Any decision by the court requires four votes.
In the event of a tie, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga would appoint a temporary seventh justice from one of five district courts of appeal. That judge would study the case and be the deciding vote in a case that could redefine the use of capital punishment in Florida.
As justices weighed Lambrix's fate across the street from the state Capitol, a House subcommittee passed a bill changing state law in response to the Hurst decision. That bill is on track for a full House vote as early as next week.
The measure, approved 11-2 by the House Criminal Justice Committee, requires a unanimous agreement by all 12 jurors on finding at least one aggravating factor necessary to impose a death sentence. Current law allows that finding to be by a simple majority of seven jurors.
Florida is the only state with an active execution system that also allows a jury recommendation of death to be by a bare majority. In every other state with the death penalty, except for Alabama and Delaware, a jury recommendation of death must be unanimous.
Public defenders, legal experts and some Democratic legislators argued that Florida should also require unanimous juries. But prosecutors, who have political clout, won a provision requiring at least nine jurors to agree on a recommendation of death.
In 2005, the Florida Supreme Court urged the Legislature to insist on unanimous juries in death cases, warning that if it did not act, Florida's death penalty could be ruled unconstitutional.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said Tuesday he sees a growing bipartisan consensus in the Senate for a law requiring juries to be unanimous in death cases.
Gov. Rick Scott, who signed Lambrix's death warrant on Nov. 30, said Monday he would wait for a new death penalty sentencing law to reach his desk.
"What I think about in each of these cases is the victims," Scott said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.