The right to an adequate defense, regardless of personal wealth or social influence, is an underpinning of our justice system.
On that much, everyone should agree, regardless of how one views the death penalty as a measure of justice.
But on Tuesday, Missouri intends to execute a man who has not been afforded that right.
Russell Bucklew most certainly committed the crimes that he was tried and convicted of in 1997. He’s a murderer, a kidnapper and a rapist.
He shot and killed Michael Sanders, a man he suspected of being the new lover of his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Ray. Bucklew shot Sanders in front of the man’s then-6-year-old son, also firing the gun at the child, but missing. Then he handcuffed Ray and dragged her to a car he had stolen. Bucklew raped her during the next several hours.
Even though Bucklew has spent years on death row, federal defense attorneys new to the case say that they are just now doing some of the most basic work that American Bar Association standards require in all death penalty cases.
The attorneys work for the new federal defense Capital Habeas Unit, which was just put in place last year at the insistence of Missouri judges. Other states have such units, which are considered money savers for taxpayers because they ensure that people who are trained and experienced in death penalty cases are involved throughout the process.
But because the unit is new, staff only began studying Bucklew’s case in November. They’ve completed about one-third of the work required for a capital case.
Most troubling, the team discovered that aspects of the Cape Girardeau man’s upbringing were not thoroughly investigated by his previous defense. team
“There is work that has been uncovered that we’d like to do, but the execution is scheduled for next week,” said Laine Cardarella, the federal defender overseeing the investigation.
There is also the serious matter of Bucklew’s health. He has an inoperable condition that causes vascular tumors in his head and throat. Because his blood does not circulate properly, the tumors could burst and begin gushing blood as the lethal injection is administered. Bucklew could choke on his own blood.
His medical condition was the reason that a previous execution date in 2014 was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Understandably, many people are unmoved by arguments that someone who has caused so much pain should be granted any level of mercy. But the law of the land is that executions are not to be carried out in cruel and unusual way.
It is questionable whether that constitutionally protected standard can be met. Missouri has compounded this issue by refusing to answer questions about its lethal injection process, shrouding it in secrecy.
A legal representative of Gov. Eric Greitens was apprised of these concerns and met with defense attorneys, including a member of the Habeas team.