BONNE TERRE, Mo. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday halted the execution of a Missouri inmate with a rare medical condition who challenged the state's refusal to disclose the source of its lethal injection drug.
The justices said a lower federal court needs to take another look at the case of Russell Bucklew, whose execution would have been the nation's first since last month's botched execution in Oklahoma. Bucklew had been scheduled to be put to death at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for the 1996 killing of a man during a violent crime spree, but Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito blocked the execution late Tuesday to give the full court time to consider the matter.
By law, Missouri has a 24-hour window to carry out a scheduled execution, and the ruling from the full Supreme Court Wednesday evening meant the state Supreme Court would have to set a new execution date if Missouri is to carry out the punishment.
Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, people who were to have witnessed Bucklew's execution on the state's behalf were released. Eric Slusher, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, confirmed that no further litigation was expected Wednesday.
"This is something the attorney general's office is going to have to respond to and take up in court. As a result, we will stand down tonight," Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Mike O'Connell told reporters.
Bucklew, 46, suffers from a rare congenital condition — cavernous hemangioma — that causes weakened and malformed blood vessels, as well as tumors in his nose and throat. His attorneys say this and the secrecy surrounding the state's lethal injection drug combine to make for an unacceptably high chance of something going wrong during his execution. He told The Associated Press last week that he was scared of what might happen during the process.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Today's stay of execution will give the lower federal courts time to consider Mr. Bucklew's claim that his execution would violate his rights under the Eighth Amendment to be free from cruel and unusual punishment," Lindsay Runnels, an attorney for Bucklew said in an email to the AP
The next scheduled executions in the U.S. are on June 18 — in Missouri, Florida and Pennsylvania, though the Pennsylvania execution likely will be delayed.
During Oklahoma's April 29 execution, inmate Clayton Lockett's vein collapsed, and he writhed on the gurney before dying of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after the start of a procedure that typically takes roughly one-fourth of that time to complete.
Missouri switched from a three-drug protocol to the single drug pentobarbital late last year. None of the six inmates executed since Missouri made the change has shown outward signs of pain or suffering.
European companies opposed to capital punishment cut off supplies of certain execution drugs, leading states to turn to U.S. sources. The states refuse to identify the sources of their execution drugs, saying secrecy is necessary to protect the sources from possible retaliation by death penalty opponents.
Death penalty opponents say the secrecy makes it impossible to ensure the drugs couldn't cause an inmate to endure an agonizing death that rises to the level of unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
The AP and four other news organizations filed a lawsuit last week against the Missouri Department of Corrections, claiming the state's refusal to provide information on the execution drug violates the public's constitutional right to have access to information about the punishment.
According to prosecutors, Bucklew was angry at his girlfriend, Stephanie Pruitt, for leaving him. Pruitt moved with her two daughters into the Cape Girardeau home of Michael Sanders, who had two sons. Bucklew tracked Pruitt down at Sanders' home March 21, 1996, and killed Sanders in front of Pruitt and the four children. He handcuffed and beat Pruitt, drove her to a secluded area and raped her.
Later, after a state trooper spotted the car, Bucklew shot at the trooper but missed, authorities say. Bucklew later escaped from jail, hid in the home of Pruitt's mother and beat her with a hammer.
Bucklew, whose steak dinner in a holding cell Tuesday night was his chosen "last meal," declined offers of breakfast and lunch Wednesday as the Supreme Court weighed his fate, O'Connell said. Bucklew was to remain in that holding cell at least through Wednesday night before being sent to a prison in nearby Potosi.