Florida has executed Bobby Joe Long (pictured), a mentally ill Vietnam veteran with service-related traumatic brain injuries, after the U.S. Supreme Court on May 23, 2019 declined to review his case. Long had asked the Court to halt his execution to address “[w]hether an individual who suffers from severe mental illness is exempt from execution under the Eighth Amendment. In 1980, Long received a diagnosis of “Traumatic Brain Disease” from the Veterans Administration as a result of injuries sustained during his military service. He also had a history of several traumatic head injuries during his childhood. Following his diagnosis, he was discharged and given a “service-connected disability rating,” but received little or no treatment from the military or the VA for his brain damage. Four years later, he killed eight women in an eight-month span, including the murder for which he was sentenced to death. At Long’s trial, medical experts testified that his injuries had damaged the areas of the brain responsible for judgment and behavior control.

Long’s petition for review—one of three he filed in the Court during the pendency of his death warrant—urged the Court to prohibit the execution of people with severe mental illness, saying, “[t]he same lessened moral culpability cited by Atkins [which prohibited the execution of people with intellectual disability] and Roper [which prohibited the execution of juvenile offenders] in finding the intellectually disabled and juveniles ineligible for execution applies with equal force to individuals with severe mental illness.” His lawyers argued that “[s]evere mental illness, like intellectual disability, is a persistent and frequently debilitating medical condition that impairs an individual’s ability to make rational decisions, control impulses, evaluate information, and function properly in society. Because severely mentally ill defendants have a lessened moral culpability, because their impairments ‘jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings,’… and because their diminished capacity negates the retributive and deterrent goals of capital punishment, they should be held categorically ineligible to receive the death penalty.”

Florida’s Catholic bishops had called on Governor Ron DeSantis to grant clemency for Long, citing both Long’s mental illness and the Church’s teachings against capital punishment. In a letter to the governor, the Florida Catholic Conference wrote that, “[a]lthough [Long] caused much harm, society has been safe from his aggressive acts in the decades of his incarceration. Without taking his life, society can be protected while he endures the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole.” The letter called attention to “the multiple traumas [Long] experienced throughout his life,” including a motorcycle accident he suffered in 1974. “That incident profoundly affected him and his behaviors,” the Florida conference said, and “contributed to his receiving a disability rating from the military, from which he was honorably discharged.”

Long was the eighth person executed in the United States in 2019 and the first in Florida. He is the 1498th person put to death in the U.S. since executions resumed in 1977.

Long’s petition also argued that executing him after he has already spent 33 years in prison violates the constitutional ban on double jeopardy because Florida authorized two punishments for first-degree murder at the time of his trial—death or life with eligibility for parole after 25 years—and he had already served the equivalent of the statutorily prescribed sentencing alternative. He also filed petitions seeking review of Florida’s execution protocol and its clemency process.

(Florida Catholic Conference asks governor to halt execution of serial killer, Catholic News Agency, May 21, 2019; Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Long v. Inch, U.S. Supreme Court, May 20, 2019.) Read DPIC’s report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty. See U.S. Supreme Court, Mental Illness, and U.S. Military.