Missouri execution halted by Supreme Court justice after appeals court back and forth
By Mark Berman
The Supreme Court has now halted the execution of Russell Bucklew. In an order issued late Tuesday night, Justice Samuel L. Alito Jr. wrote that the execution will be stayed “pending further order” from Alito or the full court.
A federal appeals court halted the execution of Russell Bucklew on Tuesday, just hours before the state of Missouri was set to execute him by lethal injection.
Attorneys for Bucklew, a convicted killer, had asked the courts for a stay of execution owing to a medical condition of Bucklew’s that they said would make it more likely he would suffer a prolonged, painful death during the execution.
Bucklew has a condition that causes weak blood vessels to grow in his face, head, neck and throat, his attorneys said, in addition to having growths in his head and neck that are partially blocking his airway.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in Kansas City announced the stay on Tuesday evening. In granting Bucklew’s request for a 60-day stay, the court said that the undisputed medical evidence submitted by his attorneys make it clear that he would likely endure “unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions.”
In addition, the court said that Missouri “appears to have conducted no meaningful assessment of the likely interaction of Bucklew’s unique physiology with the execution protocol.” The harm to Bucklew would be much greater than the harm to the state if the execution is stayed, the ruling said.
Bucklew was set to be executed at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for shooting and killing a man in 1996 before going on to beat, rape and abduct an ex-girlfriend.
The execution would have been the 21st in the country so far this year and the first since a botched execution in Oklahoma last month. Clayton Lockett, also a convicted murderer, writhed and grimaced before ultimately dying of a heart attack several minutes after the execution was called off. This incident sparked heightened interest in the way the United States carries out executions and drew worldwide attention, including critical comments from President Obama and the United Nations.
“I’m sick about it not working on me. I’m afraid that it’s going to turn me into a vegetable, that I’d be brain dead,” Bucklew told the Guardian earlier this month. “You saw what happened down in Oklahoma. I’m the next guy up – am I gonna get all screwed up here? Are they gonna screw it up?”
Bucklew’s reprieve is the second time in a week that an inmate has been spared hours before receiving the lethal injection. On May 13, Texas was scheduled to carry out the first execution since the botched one in Oklahoma, but that execution was halted by a court shortly before the lethal injection was set to occur.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri had denied Bucklew’s request for a stay on Monday. Bucklew’s attorneys then filed a motion on Tuesday asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit for a stay and filed a separate appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court the same day.
“We are deeply relieved that the panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has granted a stay of execution for Russell Bucklew, who faced substantial risk of a prolonged, tortuous execution tonight due to his rare and serious medical condition,” Cheryl Pilate, one of Bucklew’s attorneys, said in a statement Tuesday.
Bucklew’s attorneys had also criticized the secrecy that surrounds the state’s lethal injection procedures. Missouri executes inmates using a lethal injection of the drug pentobarbital. But the state’s refusal to reveal where it obtains the drugs is the subject of a lawsuit filed last week by several news organizations. The Associated Press, the Guardian and three other media organizations sued the Missouri Department of Corrections to try and force the state to reveal where it is obtaining the drugs for lethal injections.
Missouri has executed four people so far this year, which is as many executions as the state carried out between 2006 and 2013.