Lawyers for Russell Bucklew, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Missouri on Tuesday, describe him in their clemency petition as “a man of profound Christian faith, a loyal and true friend, a caring son, and a man repentant for his crimes.”
But you don’t have to believe that he’s a different man now — “free from his debilitating prescription opioid addiction and steadied by the positive influence of faith” — to know why Gov. Mike Parson should commute his death sentence.
Nor do you have to think that the “often violent and chaotic environment” in which Bucklew’s lawyers say he grew up changes anything.
Our editorial board supports the abolition of the death penalty. It was in response to Bucklew’s case that we wrote last year that, “It’s long past time to acknowledge that there are many reasons the state should stop executing prisoners. Even for the most egregious crimes, and with no exceptions.”
But you don’t have to agree with our view to see why a grisly death at our collective hand is a dishonorable answer to 51-year-old Bucklew’s bloody behavior 23 years ago.
Bucklew has a rare medical condition called cavernous hemangioma, which causes malformed blood vessels. His lawyers argue that the many tumors in his head, nose and throat could burst and make him choke on his own blood as he’s being put to death.
“He is likely to suffocate on his own blood for multiple minutes experiencing excruciating pain,” said Cassandra Stubbs, ACLU Director of the Capital Punishment Project.
If this doesn’t amount to the “cruel and unusual punishment” outlawed by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we’re not sure what would.
And whether he deserves to die a horrible death is not even the right question. The real question is whether we deserve to have this done on our behalf.
Bucklew’s condition makes it “highly likely that the state’s protocol will cause a visually gruesome execution that will traumatize corrections personnel and witnesses alike,” the clemency petition says.
During a 2016 Missouri Senate debate over the death penalty, opened by a Republican who opposes capital punishment on religious grounds, Parson said he disagreed with his Catholic colleague: “There are cold-blooded killers out there.”
There are, of course, and no one disputes that Bucklew was one. He was convicted of first-degree murder in the March 1996 shooting death of 27-year-old Michael Sanders. Bucklew also kidnapped his ex-girlfriend from Sanders’ home, raped her and shot at the Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who came after him.
Former Cape Girardeau County Prosecutor Morley Swingle, who argued the death penalty case, recently described Bucklew as “just a purely evil sociopath” and a perfect example of “the reason we have the death penalty in the state of Missouri; to deal with people like this.”
People whose death only highlights how brutal, capricous and unevenly applied capital punishment really is?
Otherwise, as the clemency petition says, “The ghastly execution process will be observed and documented by a mix of witnesses from the state, defense and media. The aftermath of Russell’s execution will have a lasting impact on those present to witness the moment and will likely affect the public’s attitude about the death penalty and, in particular, how this state carries out the ultimate punishment.”
But we don’t have to watch a man choke on his own blood to know this execution is wrong.