Missouri Inmate’s Execution Halted by Supreme Court Justice at Final Hour

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Death penalty opponents protesting outside St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis on Tuesday evening. Photo: Jeff Roberson

After a series of reversals on Tuesday, the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Russell Bucklew was finally scheduled to take place at midnight. However, with a little more than an hour to go, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito issued an order suspending the Missouri inmate's execution. Bucklew, 46, was set to be the first person put to death in the U.S. since Clayton Lockett's botched execution in Oklahoma, but his lawyers argued that his rare medical condition could prevent the lethal injection drugs from working properly, leading to a slow and painful death.

Bucklew suffers from a birth defect known as cavernous hemangioma, which causes weakened and malformed blood vessels, and tumors in his nose and throat. His lawyers say that the condition may prevent the drugs from circulating correctly. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals initially halted Bucklew's execution on Tuesday, saying, "unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions."

At around 10:30 p.m. central time the full 8th Circuit court ruled that the execution could proceed. Then Justice Alito, who handles emergency issues for the 8th Circuit court, renewed the stay. He didn't say why he issued the order, but Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in a statement that the Supreme Court will consider Bucklaw's case on Wednesday. Koster noted that the execution warrant is valid until midnight on May 21, which means he could still be executed at any time on Wednesday.

Bucklew has been incarcerated since 1996, when he tracked down his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Pruitt, at the home of her new boyfriend, Michael Sanders, and fatally shot him. The killing took place in front of Pruitt's two daughters and Sanders' two sons. Bucklew then kidnapped and raped Pruitt. Later he escaped from jail, hid in Pruitt's mother's home, and attacked the mother and her boyfriend with a hammer and a knife. They managed to escape, and Bucklew was arrested again.

In court papers, Missouri's corrections department challenged Bucklew's medical claim, arguing that he has successfully undergone surgery while under anesthesia, so the lethal injection should work. Reuters reports that they also questioned why he only raised the issue days before his execution, when he's had the condition for years.

In an interview with The Guardian last week, Bucklew said he became more scared after learning of Lockett's execution. "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. You saw what happened down in Oklahoma," he said. "I'm the next guy up – am I gonna get all screwed up here? Are they gonna screw it up?"