Federal court halts execution, citing inmate's rare medical condition

A federal court has stopped a Missouri execution, suggesting that the inmate could suffer extreme pain. It is the second execution halted by a federal court this month.

Missouri Department of Corrections/AP/File
Russell Bucklew was scheduled to die for killing a romantic rival as part of a crime spree in southeast Missouri in 1996, but a federal court issued a stay Tuesday.

The Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis granted a stay of execution to a Missouri inmate hours before he was scheduled to be put to death, citing a medical condition that the court said heightened the risk that the man would suffer extreme pain during the lethal injection process.

Russell Bucklew, who had been facing execution at 1:01 am EDT, has a congenital condition that causes constrictions in his nose and throat. His lawyers had argued that this condition substantially increased the likelihood that execution by lethal injection would violate his constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Bucklew's unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions,” wrote judge Michael Malloy. “We also conclude that the irreparable harm to Bucklew is great in comparison to the harm to the state from staying the execution.”

A three judge panel of the court ruled 2 to 1 in favor of Mr. Bucklew. The court’s order puts off Bucklew’s execution for 60 days. Bucklew was convicted in 1997 of raping and kidnapping his ex-girlfriend and killing the man to whom she had fled after Bucklew had threatened her.

In the decision, the court appeared to take issue with Missouri’s hastiness in pushing to go forward with the execution, even after Bucklew’s lawyers provided multiple statements from expert witnesses attesting to the severity and rarity of Bucklew’s medical condition.

“The state appears to have conducted no meaningful assessment of the likely interaction of Bucklew's unique physiology with the execution protocol,” wrote the court. The court also said that the state’s various suggestions for changes to Bucklew’s lethal injection method seemed to have been “made on the fly.”

Bucklew is the second inmate to be granted a stay of execution in the 11th hour this month. Earlier in May, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans granted a stay for Texas inmate Robert Campbell after defense lawyers showed that the state had failed to disclose two IQ test scores supporting their argument that Mr. Campbell is mentally handicapped and therefore cannot be legally executed.

Both Bucklew and Campbell faced being the first person to be put to death in the US since the bungled execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett. His drawn out, gruesome execution, which used drugs bought from an unnamed pharmacy, raised multiple questions about capital punishment in the US, including if states should be allowed to keep the source of their lethal injection drugs a secret.

In both Campbell’s and Bucklew’s cases, lawyers for the condemned had also argued for stays on the grounds that both Texas and Missouri, as well as other states, refuse to disclose the sources of their lethal injection drugs. The New Orleans court rejected Campbell’s appeal over the issue, before just hours later accepting his second one on the IQ tests. The most recent decision in Missouri does not address the question. 

Last week, five news organizations filed a lawsuit in a Missouri district court against the state’s Department of Corrections over the issue of Missouri’s refusal to name the source of its lethal injection drugs, saying that the state is violating the public’s First Amendment right to information. A decision is pending.

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