WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review the case of a Missouri death row inmate who says his rare medical condition could cause him to choke on his own blood during an execution.
The justices said they would hear the appeal of inmate Russell Bucklew. The court blocked Bucklew's execution in March after he argued that a tumor in his throat is likely to rupture and bleed during the administration of the drugs that would be used to kill him.
Bucklew argues that subjecting him to lethal injection would violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The issue is whether Bucklew has to show there is another method of execution available that would reduce the risk of needless suffering.
Bucklew has proposed that the state use lethal gas instead of an injection of pentobarbital, if the execution is carried out. Missouri law still provides for the option of lethal gas, but the state no longer has a gas chamber and has not used the method since 1965.
Bucklew says it is likely he would essentially suffocate for two to three minutes if he is given a drug injection. The feeling of suffocation would last no more than 30 seconds using gas, he says.
But the federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled against him and concluded that he did not prove the alternate method would reduce his suffering. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that inmates challenging a method of execution have to show that there's an alternative that is likely to be less painful.
None of the 20 inmates executed since Missouri began using pentobarbital in 2013 have shown obvious signs of pain or suffering.
Bucklew was convicted in the 1996 killing a man who was seeing Bucklew's former girlfriend. He became angry when his girlfriend, Stephanie Ray, ended their relationship in 1996. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said in court filings that Bucklew slashed Ray's face with a knife, beat her and threatened to kill her. She took her children and left.
Over the next two weeks, according to the court filings, Bucklew stalked Ray, as he stole a car, firearms, two sets of handcuffs and duct tape. He eventually found out where she was staying and broke into the southeastern Missouri trailer home of Michael Sanders, Ray's new boyfriend, fatally shooting him. When Sanders' 6-year-old son came out of hiding, Bucklew shot at the boy and missed.
Bucklew pistol-whipped Ray, put her in handcuffs and dragged her to his car, where he raped her.
Police pursued Bucklew — a chase ending in a gunfight that wounded an officer. Once in jail, Bucklew managed to escape and went to the home of Ray's mother, where he attacked her with a hammer before he was finally captured.
Arguments in Bucklew v. Precythe, 17-8151, will take place in the fall.