Over the objection of four justices, the Supreme Court tonight blocked Missouri from executing Russell Bucklew, who was scheduled to die tonight. Bucklew was convicted for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders, who was living at the time with Bucklew’s former girlfriend, Stephanie Ray. Bucklew kidnapped and raped Ray, and he wounded a state trooper during the shootout that preceded his capture.
Bucklew argues that allowing the state to execute him by lethal injection would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he suffers from a rare disease that has caused “unstable, blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck, and throat.” If Bucklew has trouble breathing when the execution begins, he contends, the tumor in his throat could rupture, filling his mouth and airway with blood. As a result, he tells the justices, his “execution will very likely be gruesome and painful far beyond the pain inherent in the process of an ordinary lethal injection.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit rejected Bucklew’s challenge to the constitutionality of his execution, holding that he had not shown that his suggested alternative method of execution – lethal gas – would significantly reduce the likelihood that he would suffer unnecessarily.
Last week Bucklew filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review that ruling, which he described as resting on “3 distinct misreadings and dangerous extensions of this Court’s” earlier decisions on lethal injection. The state filed a brief opposing review, and Bucklew has filed his reply, but the case has not yet been scheduled for consideration at one of the justices’ private conferences. Tonight’s order staves off Bucklew’s execution to allow them to consider his petition. If the justices deny the petition, the stay will automatically end and the state can go forward with his execution; if they grant it, the stay will continue until the justices rule on the merits of his case.
An inmate seeking a stay of execution needs five votes in his favor. With four justices (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch) indicating that they would have denied Bucklew’s request, those votes presumably came from Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.