SCOTUS Splits 5-4 to Block Missouri Execution


Over the dissenting vote of its four conservative justices, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution late Tuesday night for a Missouri man who claims that his rare disease would render his execution by lethal injection necessarily cruel and unusual.

Russell Bucklew, convicted of capital homicide for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders, was scheduled to die late Tuesday night for the murder and an associated kidnapping, rape, and the injuring of a state trooper, SCOTUSBlog reported.

Bucklew suffers from a rare disease which causes the formation of "unstable, blood-filled tumors" in his head, neck, and throat. As such, he has said, any breathing problems induced by Missouri's execution process could cause the tumors in his throat to rupture, leading to an execution that he described in a filing to the court as "gruesome and painful far beyond the pain inherent in the process of an ordinary lethal injection."

The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had previously rejected Bucklew's claim, finding that he had not shown that his proposed alternative means of execution, lethal gas, would significantly reduce his chance of suffering needlessly.

Bucklew has filed his case before the Court, which led to the stay Tuesday night; Missouri has filed a brief in opposition, but the justices have not yet considered the case in full in conference. If the justices eventually opt to deny Bucklew's full appeal, then the stay will be void.

The dissent of the court's four conservative justices—Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch—suggests that Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's liberal wing to stay Bucklew's execution. Sentencing scholar and court watcher Douglas A. Berman speculated that Kennedy's vote in favor may have been driven by recent botched executions in Alabama and Ohio, the former having been described as "bloody" by an attorney in the case.

If it does take up Bucklew's case, the court will add to a number of notable recent decisions on capital punishment. Last month, the court agreed to hear the case of a man on death row who claims his dementia renders him unable to remember his crime, and thus makes his execution cruel and unusual. On Monday, the court declined to hear a suit from famed litigator Neal Katyal seeking to abolish the death penalty altogether.

Charles Fain Lehman

Charles Fain Lehman   Email Charles | Full Bio | RSS
Charles Fain Lehman is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He writes about policy, covering crime, law, drugs, immigration, and social issues. Reach him on twitter (@CharlesFLehman) or by email at

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