Justice served in Susan Morris case 25 years later

By Morgan Givens
Staff writer

On Jan. 19, 2018, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the death warrant for Eric Branch, the man who is guilty of the heinous crime against UWF student Susan Leigh Morris, just a few days late of the 25th anniversary of her death.

Susan Morris was beginning her spring semester in 1993 as a television production major, and a very involved student, being a sister of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority as well as a member of the Campus Activity Board. On the evening of Monday, Jan. 11, the first day of the semester, Morris was leaving class and was walking unaccompanied to her car.

It was dark, and the parking lot was barren. It was there Morris was ambushed by Branch.

Branch was from Indiana and had already been charged with sexual battery in 1991. Branch fled the state because he violated his parole, and 10 days before Morris’ murder, he was convicted of sexual battery again, this time in Panama City. It was at this time Branch was on the run, and he found himself needing to change vehicles.

Branch sexually assaulted and beat Morris to death that night on the UWF campus. He then left her in a shallow grave in a location on the university’s nature trail before fleeing with her car. Two days later, her body was recovered, and Branch was arrested after he drove back to Indiana.

In court, Branch was indicted on counts of first-degree murder, sexual battery and grand theft auto. In early May 1994, he was sentenced to death. After 25 years of sitting on death row, the warrant to have Branch executed was signed along with a date: Feb. 22, 2018. 

The front page of the Pensacola News Journal on Jan. 14, 1993, showed harrowing images of students emotionally ruined with the news of Morris’ death. The tragic events hit the university hard and in the following days, news articles focused on remembering Morris as well as extreme concerns for campus safety.

Since the events 25 years ago, UWF has adopted several initiatives to prevent Morris’ case to ever happen again. Emergency beacons with alarm boxes are scattered around the campus with boxes that when automatically opened notifies authorities. The university also adopted an escort service to have someone accompany students to their vehicles.

Campus-wide events increase and spread awareness on sexual misconduct such as the annual “Take Back the Night” which aims to combat the culture of rape and sexual assault and embrace victims of sexual assault. The “Just Two It” campaign was launched with the idea to have someone with you commuting through the campus when it’s dark.

Students can also qualify for the Susan L. Morris Memorial Scholarship, which gives opportunities to students who demonstrate service and are passionate about the communications department.

Two of most recent university presidents were at the campus during the time of Morris’ murder. Former President Judith Bense was an assistant professor, and current President Martha Saunders was the coordinator of the public relations program in the same communications department Morris was part of.

“While I hope for closure for Susan’s family, friends and our community, nothing will ever bring her back,” Saunders said. “Her legacy, however, lives on in many ways on our campus.”

In an interview with WEAR, Saunders passed on the news of Branch’s execution date to those that worked at UWF during the tragic events.

“Most of the faculty that was here have gone on,” Saunders said. “I sent them all notices and they were really glad to get this closure.”

For David and Marcia Morris, Susan’s parents, this news was a long time coming. They expressed how thankful they are to the UWF staff and students as well as their daughter’s sorority and fraternity that considered Morris to be their sister in a recent Voyager article.

Many former members of the Alpha Gamma Delta and Sigma Alpha Mu organizations still remember and honor Susan’s memory long after they have been students at UWF.

“Susan was such a special person that was loved by all that met her,” Tim Christenson said. “It is truly a beautiful thing that her memory is kept alive by the ones she impacted the most just by being herself. I miss her greatly as we all do.”

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Paying tribute and remembering Morris is still very possible. On campus, a few steps outside of the president’s office, there is a winding sidewalk that is surrounded by bushes and a large oak tree. Under the tree is a bench and a plaque dedicated to Morris along with a sign that resonates with many of loved ones.

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go… Some stay for a while and leave footprints on our hearts.. And we are never the same.”

 

Morris’s parents released the following statement to the Voyager:

We have been expecting this event for 24 years. The signing of the Death Warrant came unexpectedly;
there was no advance warning it was going to happen. We were notified before the press was when it
did happen, which is standard protocol for the Governor’s Legal Office and the Attorney General’s
Office. The Victim Advocates in those Offices have been very good at communicating and explaining
what was and is happening in the legal areas of the case over the years, and we have appreciated that
very much.

The signing starts another series of legal moves by the defendant to delay the execution, similar to the
ones that have taken place in the last 24 years. This has brought back memories of hearings of various
types, which took place after the sentence was handed down, in places ranging from the Judge’s office
to the Supreme Court of Florida. There is a group in Tallahassee named the Capital Collateral Group,
whose mission is to go back through all the records of a trial which results in a Death Sentence, and try
to find errors that will result in a new trial, reversal of the verdict, reduction of the sentence, etc. Memories of those hearings are not pleasant even though the outcome was satisfactory to us.

And so we will wait and pray for strength, and see what happens as the wheels of justice begin to turn
once more. After 25 years, a few more weeks won’t matter much. Whatever does happen it won’t bring
back Susan, but we will try to let the good memories of her almost 22 years with us overshadow the bad
ones of the last 25.

One Response to Justice served in Susan Morris case 25 years later

  1. Dave Morris says:

    Morgan, ‘Just read your article. Nicely done, especially including pix of the Memorial bench and sign. Interestingly, and ironically, the words on the sign were in a calendar that Susan gave to one of her girl friends for Christmas, and the friend was part of the group that initiated the memorial.

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