Despite pleas from activists, Missouri executes inmate with medical condition
UPDATE: (October 1, 2019) 7:48 p.m.
A Missouri man has been executed for killing a man during a violent 1996 crime spree, despite concerns that the inmate’s rare medical condition would cause a gruesome lethal injection.
Russell Bucklew was executed Tuesday evening at the state prison in Bonne Terre. It was Missouri’s first execution since January 2017.
Bucklew looked around and twitched his feet beneath the sheet as he lay on the gurney just before the lethal injection. He suddenly took a deep breath and all movement stopped.
There were no outward signs of distress.
Bucklew had twice previously been within hours of execution, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court grant last-minute reprieves over concerns that Bucklew might suffer during the execution process. He had a condition called cavernous hemangioma and had blood-filled tumors in his head, neck and throat.
Bucklew’s attorneys said in a clemency request to Gov. Mike Parson that a throat tumor could burst, causing Bucklew to choke to death. Parson denied clemency earlier Tuesday.
Activists are pleading for Missouri’s governor to stop what they say would be “one of the most gruesome” executions in US history.
Russell Bucklew, 51, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Tuesday. He was convicted of first degree murder, kidnapping, and first degree burglary in 1997.
Bucklew suffers from a rare blood vessel disorder called cavernous hemangioma. The disease can cause tumors in the head and regular bleeding from the mouth, nose, eyes and ears.
An execution by lethal injection could cause prolonged suffocation and excruciating pain, Bucklew’s attorneys have said. Bucklew argued the state should consider death by lethal gas as an alternative.
In April, the Supreme Court ruled against Bucklew in a 5-4 decision, which means plans for the lethal injection can proceed.
Justice Neil Gorsuch said the Eighth Amendment “does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain” in carrying out executions.
He also said Bucklew had failed to “present any evidence” that the substitution of lethal gas would “significantly reduce his risk of pain,” Gorsuch said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union said executing Bucklew would violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“What makes (Bucklew’s) execution different is that he has a medical condition that would make it one of the most gruesome in U.S. history,” the ACLU wrote.
It said Bucklew’s tumors “will likely rupture during the lethal injection process, causing him to hemorrhage, choke, and suffocate in his own blood.”
The group called for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to stop plans to execute Bucklew.
Bucklew has successfully staved off his execution in the past.
In 2014, the Supreme Court granted Bucklew a stay of execution, pending appeals.
Dr. Joel Zivot had filed an affidavit in the case saying that Bucklew’s airway is so “severely compromised and obstructed,” especially when he’s lying flat, that it could easily be ruptured, raising the risk that Bucklew could choke or suffocate.
“If you touch it, it bleeds,” Zivot wrote of Bucklew’s airway.
But Gorsuch, the current Supreme Court judge who wrote the majority opinion against Bucklew’s case this year, said justice must be served for Bucklew’s victims.
“The people of Missouri, the surviving victims of Mr. Bucklew’s crimes, and others like them deserve better,” Gorsuch wrote.
Bucklew was convicted of fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend’s presumed new boyfriend, Michael Sanders, and firing at Sanders’ son before kidnapping Stephanie Ray Pruitt.
After raping his ex-girlfriend, court documents state, Bucklew was involved in a gunfight in which he and a Missouri state trooper were injured.