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Hillsborough judge rejects move to stop Bobby Joe Long's execution

TAMPA — A judge has denied an effort to stop the scheduled May 23 execution of Bobby Joe Long, a Tampa Bay area killer who murdered eight women in the 1980s.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco issued an order Monday rejecting arguments from Long's defense, including the contention that Florida's lethal injection drugs might cause Long to have a seizure during the execution. Long, 65, suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy.

The state's lethal injection procedure was the focus of a daylong hearing Friday in a Tampa courtroom. Doctors testified about the effects of etomidate, a sedative that is the first of three drugs the state uses to kill the condemned. One doctor claimed that etomidate might trigger a seizure, but others said that is unlikely, and that the massive dose given during the execution would immediately induce a deep state of unconsciousness.

PREVIOUS STORY: Victim's mother scoffs as serial killer Bobby Joe Long seeks assurance of painless execution

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Long's death warrant last month in the murder of Michelle Denise Simms. The 22-year-old former beauty contestant, who worked as a prostitute, was abducted, raped and murdered in May 1984.

Amid the debate over whether the drugs would cause needless suffering, prosecutors suggested that some pain would be expected in an execution.

"He's not entitled to a pain-free death," Assistant Attorney General Christina Pacheco said during arguments Friday. "Michelle Simms certainly didn't have one in this case."

In order to challenge the drug's use, the law required the defense to argue that an alternative, less painful execution method was readily available. Long's attorney, Robert Norgard, begrudgingly suggested the drugs pentobarbital or fentanyl might be available to the Department of Corrections.

"I think it is absolutely absurd that I have to stand up here and tell the courts what I think a better way would be to kill my client," Norgard said at the end of Friday's hearing. "But we're playing with the cards we're dealt."

READ MORE: Tampa serial killer Bobby Joe Long's death warrant was just signed. We remember the victims.

Long's case now heads to the Florida Supreme Court. His defense must file initial arguments by Thursday and the state must respond by Monday. The defense can then reply to the state by May 14, after which the court will decide whether oral arguments are necessary.

If the state high court denies Long's claims, he can still make a final appeal in the federal system, with the last stop the U.S. Supreme Court.

Florida is the only state that uses etomidate in its lethal injection protocol. It adopted the drug in January 2017. Since then, five men have been executed. One of them, Eric Branch, screamed and thrashed on the death gurney as the drug entered his body. Opinions differed, though, about whether his final acts were a genuine response to pain.

The state's previous execution procedure called for midazolam, a drug that has become difficult for states to acquire because pharmaceutical companies object to its use in executions.

If Long's execution proceeds, it will be the first under DeSantis, who took office in January. His predecessor, Rick Scott, ordered 28 executions, the most of any Florida governor.

ALSO READ: DeSantis orders execution for Bobby Joe Long, who killed at least eight women in the 1980s.

Florida wants to execute Robert Joseph Long. His real name is Bobby Joe Long. Does it matter?

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Follow @TimesDan.

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