Supreme Court hears case of Missouri death row inmate with rare medical condition

Russell Bucklew
Russell Bucklew Jeremy Weis Photography

A Missouri death row inmate’s rare medical condition would cause him extreme pain if executed by lethal injection, his attorneys told the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.

That would violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, they said during Tuesday’s oral arguments before the court.

A transcript of the arguments was posted on the U.S. Supreme Court website.

Russell Bucklew, 50, suffers from cavernous hemangioma, described as “a rare, dangerous and sometimes debilitating congenital condition that causes clumps of malformed blood vessels to grow in his head, neck and face.”

His attorneys say the condition creates a “significant risk” that lethal drugs injected into his body would not circulate properly.

“This will likely prolong the execution and cause Mr. Bucklew to suffer excruciating pain,” according to documents filed on his behalf. “Additionally, the weak, malformed veins in Mr. Bucklew’s head could rupture, leading to bleeding, choking or severely compromising his airway.”

Bucklew, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 killing of a man in southeast Missouri, was scheduled to be executed in March.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to stay his execution. But Anthony Kennedy, one of the justices who voted for the stay, retired and has been replaced by Brett Kavanaugh.

Because of previous court rulings, an inmate in Bucklew’s situation is required to offer an alternative method of execution. In his case, attorneys have suggested lethal gas.

His attorneys on Tuesday asked the Supreme Court whether the Eighth Amendment requires him to offer that alternative.

Attorneys for the state of Missouri have called Bucklew’s claim that he will suffer extreme pain “implausible.”

“Missouri’s single-drug protocol is the most humane and effective method of execution available,” they maintain in court filings. “Pentobarbital, which Missouri uses for executions, will render Bucklew unable to feel pain within 20 to 30 seconds, and likely sooner. Missouri has conducted 20 pentobarbital executions with no indication of suffering.”