The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday set an execution date of Oct. 1 for Russell Bucklew, whose challenge to the state’s lethal injection method was rejected three months ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.
If carried out, Bucklew will be the first Missouri prisoner executed since January 2017, when Mark Anthony Christeson was put to death for the 1998 murders in south-central Missouri of a mother and her two children.
Bucklew, 51, was sentenced to death in May 1997 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.
His conviction and sentence were upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1998, but his execution was stayed while he sought review in state and federal courts.
His execution, originally set to take place on Dec. 4, 1998, was rescheduled twice after the U.S. Supreme Court issued stays. In April, however, the high court rejected Bucklew’s argument that Missouri’s execution protocol using the drug pentobarbital amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Neal Gorsuch, found that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death. It also found that Bucklew had failed to meet the standard set out in two previous Supreme Court decisions prohibiting as cruel only methods that “superadd terror, pain or disgrace" to a prisoner’s death sentence.
Writing for the four dissenters, Justice Stephen Breyer said they would have upheld Bucklew’s claims because he had raised a genuine issue as to whether executing him by lethal injection would cause him excessive suffering.
Bucklew had claimed that, as a result of a rare medical condition called cavernous hemangioma, which causes vascular tumors to grow in his head, neck and throat, he was likely to choke on his own blood if executed and experience an excruciatingly painful death.
“We're obviously disappointed that the state is moving in this direction after all of the evidence that we have amassed of the very serious physical conditions that make Mr. Bucklew exceptionally vulnerable to suffering an extremely torturous execution,” said Kansas City attorney Cheryl Pilate, who represented Bucklew.
Pilate said she will present evidence of those conditions in a clemency request she plans to file with Gov. Mike Parson.
Pilate said Bucklew has since developed another condition, Bell’s palsy, which has left him paralyzed on one side of his face.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.