In a case that tests whether execution is forbidden because a death-row inmate’s unusual physical condition raises too great a risk of serious pain in the process, the Supreme Court on Wednesday evening blocked the scheduled death of a Missouri inmate and told a federal appeals court to sort out the dispute.

Although the Court has had a variety of cases testing the use of lethal drugs for execution, it has not faced a case that focused on a single individual’s medical profile and whether that is enough to gain protection under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The case of Russell Bucklew raises that issue; he says he faces “unique risks” during execution.  He had faced execution Monday night for murdering his former girlfriend’s new boyfriend and for taking her captive and raping her.

The Court, in an unsigned order, postponed the execution until after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit can rule on his Eighth Amendment claims.  The order said the Court was leaving it to lower courts to decide whether to hold a hearing to gather factual evidence about his claims.

For years, Buckley has been diagnosed with a disease known as cavernous hemangioma, described by his lawyers as an “unstable and untreatable” disorder involving vascular tumors.  The tumors are continuing to expand, his lawyers told the Court.

No matter what drugs are used in the execution process, his plea to the Court argued, he faces “a substantial likelihood” that he will suffer hemorrhaging, choking, obstruction of his airways, and suffocation.  “Lethal injection of any sort will likely violate Mr. Bucklew’s rights under the Eighth Amendment,” his lawyers contended.

As Bucklew’s execution approached this week, he pursued two separate challenges — one in an appeal from the Missouri Supreme Court, and one in the Eighth Circuit.  The medical condition claim is the one that came from the Eighth Circuit, and now will return there.

In his other case, from the state court, Bucklew contended that prison officials had been interfering with his chances of seeking clemency from the governor, by misplacing or misusing his legal papers.  On Tuesday night, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., temporarily blocked the execution while the Court studied that clemency-related claim.  Wednesday evening, the Court vacated that stay, and denied review of that claim.  That separate order is here.

The Court clearly was more interested in the medical condition case. The two overriding issues in capital punishment these days are whether lethal injection executions will be carried out without being botched, and whether inmates have a right to know what chemicals will be used to kill them.

It is not clear whether Bucklew’s unusual case will lead to clarification on either of those issues.  His lawyers did raise the second issue in his petition, but only because he contends that the secrecy surrounding Missouri’s protocol makes it impossible for his lawyers or for doctors to analyze just what effects execution would have on his unique medical condition.

In sending the case back to lower courts, the Court did not specify what specifically it wanted the lower court to explore regarding the Eighth Amendment question.   It did not mandate an evidentiary hearing on Bucklew’s claims, but seemed to imply that that might be a good option.


Posted in Featured, Cases in the Pipeline

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Execution delayed in unusual case, SCOTUSblog (May. 21, 2014, 10:58 PM),