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Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Whether Execution Of Missouri Killer Would Cause Him Undue Pain

Missouri Department of Corrections

The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday in the case of a Missouri death row inmate who suffers from a rare disease and claims the state’s plan to execute him by lethal injection violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Russell Bucklew contends the process could cause ruptures of tumors in his head, throat and neck and result in excruciating pain.

In March, the court, by a 5-4 vote, agreed to review Bucklew's case – the second time it intervened to halt his execution. Bucklew was minutes away from execution in 2014 when the court stayed it after a botched lethal execution in Oklahoma, in which the inmate writhed in agony for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack, raised concerns about the procedure.

Bucklew, 50, was sentenced to death for the murder of Michael Sanders in Cape Girardeau County. In March 1996, he entered a trailer where Sanders lived with Bucklew’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Ray. Bucklew shot Sanders, tried to shoot a fleeing child, then abducted and raped Ray.

He later wounded a state trooper in a shootout before he was captured.   

Bucklew has a very rare congenital condition, cavernous hemangioma, which he says has caused blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck and throat. He contends he’s at risk of gagging and suffocating if he’s executed via lethal injection. Bucklew has proposed lethal gas as an alternative method of execution, but the state argues there’s no evidence he would suffer less pain using that method.

Bucklew is represented by Kansas City attorney Cheryl Pilate, who was in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to argue the case and was not available for comment.

Credit Death Penalty Information Center
Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed its acceptance of the use of the death penalty, 1,485 people have been executed in the United States. In Missouri, 88 people have been executed since then.

Four Supreme Court Justices – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – opposed review of Bucklew's case and would have allowed the execution to proceed. That means the five justices who agreed to review it included Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired and been replaced on the court by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

As noted by Scotusblog.com, a website devoted to coverage of the Supreme Court, not much is known about Kavanaugh’s views on capital punishment, but he’s regarded as significantly more conservative than Kennedy. That, says Scotusblog, could bode poorly for Bucklew.

The last execution in Missouri took place in January 2017, when Mark Christeson was given a lethal injection for the 1998 murders in south-central Missouri of Susan Brouk, her 12-year-old daughter, Adrian, and her 9-year-old son, Kyle.  

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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