WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a man on death row who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the rape, murder and kidnapping attack against his ex-girlfriend and her new partner and sons, has no right to a “painless death”.
The ruling clears the way for the execution of Russell Bucklew, who asked for gas rather than lethal injection, citing an unusual medical condition.
Bucklew, 50, argued the state’s preferred method amounts to legally banned “cruel and unusual punishment”.
The 5-4 ruling split along the court’s ideological lines.
Bucklew was sentenced to death in 1996 for rape, murder and kidnapping in an attack against his ex-girlfriend and her new partner and six-year-old son.
In recent court filings, Bucklew argued that his congenital condition, cavernous hemangioma, might cause him excessive pain if he is put to death by lethal injection.
The condition causes blood-filled tumours in his throat, neck and face, which he said could rupture during his execution causing him extreme pain and suffocation.
According to Bucklew, he would feel excessive pain if the state executioner is allowed to use the state’s preferred method of a single drug, pentobarbital, applied by needle.
But the Supreme Court’s conservative justices said on Monday they considered the legal effort to be a stalling tactic.
They said it was up to the prisoner to prove that another method of execution would “reduce a substantial risk of severe pain”, but he had not done so.
Referring to the history of capital punishment, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court’s majority that “the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death – something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.”
“The state of Missouri and the victims of Russell Bucklew’s crimes have waited 23 long years for this just and lawful sentence to be carried out,” said a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican. “With today’s ruling we are one step closer to justice.”
Monday’s ruling was in line with a 2015 decision in which the court rejected a challenge to Oklahoma’s method of execution by lethal injection. In that case, the court held that inmates challenging a method of execution must come up with an alternative option that was less painful.
Bucklew failed to show that lethal gas could be “readily implemented” as required under Supreme Court precedent, the court ruled. There also was no evidence that his chosen alternative, lethal gas, would be less painful, it concluded.
Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, noted that Bucklew is awaiting execution for crimes committed more than two decades ago.
“Yet since then, he has managed to secure delay through lawsuit after lawsuit,” Gorsuch wrote, echoing a view often expressed by death penalty advocates.
Fellow conservative Justice Samuel Alito said in 2015 that the legal challenge to Oklahoma’s method of execution case was part of a “guerrilla war” against the death penalty.
Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 murder in Missouri of Michael Sanders, who was living with Bucklew’s former girlfriend Stephanie Ray. Bucklew fatally shot Sanders at his trailer home, kidnapped and raped Ray, shot at Sanders’ 6-year-old son and wounded a police officer before being apprehended, according to court papers.
Bucklew’s appeal neither contested his guilt nor sought to avoid execution.
The case did not challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty itself. The court has barred the execution of juveniles and mentally disabled people, but there are no signs that its conservative majority is inclined to find capital punishment unconstitutional.
In Missouri, execution is authorized using either injection or gas but the state in practice uses only lethal injection.