The Supreme Court Will Review Case of a Man Whose Blood-Filled Tumors Could Burst During Execution

The question facing them is not if he will be executed but how.

Chuck Myers/Zuma

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Russell Bucklew, a death row inmate in Missouri who was scheduled to die on March 20. Hours before the execution was set to take place, the high court voted 5-4 to halt the execution in order to review the case.

Bucklew, who was convicted for the kidnap, rape, and murder of his former boss in 1997, is afflicted with cavernous hemangioma, a rare disease which causes tumors to form in the person’s face, neck, head, and throat. 

As I reported in March, Bucklew’s lawyers argued that given his illness, his execution could be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment:

Prison staff intend to use pentobarbital, a sedative, to execute him, but this could cause his tumors to burst. Cheryl Pilate, one of Bucklew’s lawyers told the Associated Press on Monday, he would likely experience “a gruesome execution with choking and gagging on blood and the infliction of excruciating pain.”

This is the second time that Bucklew’s case has appeared before the Supreme Court, but the only time it has been accepted for review. In May 2014, when Missouri first attempted to execute him, Bucklew’s lawyers appealed, arguing that given his illness, he could not be humanely executed, and this cruel and unusual punishment would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Court granted a stay in order to allow argument to work its way through the lower courts. As I wrote: “In Glossip v. Gross, the US Supreme Court said that when the Eighth Amendment is used to challenge a method of execution a ‘reasonable alternative’ must be proposed by the inmate.” 

In the appeal, Bucklew’s lawyers suggested that the state use nitrogen gas. (The state of Oklahoma recently proposed it as an alternative to lethal injection.) But according to court documents, Dr. Joel Zivot, a professor of surgery and anesthesiology at Emory University said that “substantial risk” exists that Bucklew will “suffer from extreme or excruciating pain.” Last June, a federal judge ruled that because Bucklew could not actually show that death by nitrogen would reduce the risk of suffering, his execution should proceed. The final decision of whether Bucklew is responsible for proposing another readily-available method of execution that will reduce the risk of suffering is now up to the nation’s highest court. 

This is not the only capital punishment case in the Supreme Court this year. Last October, the Justices heard arguments for Marion Wilson, a Georgia death row inmate who argued that his trial counsel had been ineffective. The court ruled in his favor earlier this month.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate