Attorneys fear Missouri inmate faces 'grotesque' execution

ABC News 1 month ago

Attorneys for a Missouri death row inmate with a rare medical condition say the tracheostomy tube he relies on to breathe increases the risk of a "grotesque execution process" if he is put to death as scheduled Oct. 1.

Clemency from Gov. Mike Parson may be the last hope for 51-year-old convicted killer Russell Bucklew. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that the execution could proceed, and Bucklew's attorneys haven't decided if there is any merit in a state court appeal.

Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma, which causes blood-filled tumors in his head, neck and throat. Twice before, in 2014 and 2018, he's been within hours of execution, only to get last-minute reprieves from the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns about how his body would react to Missouri's execution drug, a single dose of pentobarbital.

Parson's spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, said he is still reviewing the case. In a statement, she said the Republican governor "has consistently supported capital punishment when merited by the circumstances and all other legal remedies have been exhausted and when due process has been satisfied."

Human rights groups and death penalty opponents, including all four Roman Catholic bishops in Missouri and the American Civil Liberties Union, have urged Parson to intervene. The ACLU and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty say they've gathered more than 57,000 petition signatures they plan to present to the governor Thursday.

Shortly after the 2018 reprieve, Bucklew contracted meningitis and had to be rushed to a St. Louis hospital, said Jeremy Weis, a Bucklew attorney. Doctors inserted a permanent tracheostomy tube.

Weis said the tube is narrow and the tumors bleed easily, especially when Bucklew is stressed. If blood fills the tube during the execution, Weis said, Bucklew won't be able to breathe and could choke to death.

"It really raises the risk of what could be a fairly grotesque execution process," Weis said.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections would not say if the state planned any special precautions to ensure Bucklew doesn't suffer, such as extra medical staff or monitoring. Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said witnesses will continue to be allowed to observe the execution at the state prison in Bonne Terre.

In the clemency petition, Bucklew's attorneys warned of what witnesses may see.

"Russell's compromised medical condition make it highly likely that the state's protocol will cause a visually gruesome execution that will traumatize corrections personnel and witnesses alike," the petition states.

Bucklew has previously proposed that the state execute him by having him breathe pure nitrogen through a mask, but the state responded that no state has ever carried out an execution in that way.

Some attempts to execute sick inmates in other states have gone wrong in recent years.

In 2017, the execution of twice-convicted killer Alva Campbell, who suffered from smoking-related breathing problems, had to be halted in Ohio when a usable vein couldn't be found to administer execution drugs. He died in 2018 at age 69.

In 2018, Alabama halted the lethal injection of Doyle Lee Hamm when the execution team had trouble getting the intravenous line connected. Hamm had damaged veins because of lymphoma, hepatitis and drug use. A doctor hired by Hamm's lawyers wrote in a report that Hamm had at least 11 puncture sites and bled heavily from his groin during the attempts to connect the line.

Adding to the uncertainty in Missouri is the secretive process the state uses to obtain its execution drug. Big pharmaceutical companies prohibit the use of their drugs in executions, so it is believed that Missouri and other states have turned to compound pharmacies for their supplies. Missouri refuses to say how or where it gets the drug.

None of the nearly two dozen inmates executed since Missouri switched from a three-drug protocol to pentobarbital in 2013 have shown obvious signs of pain or suffering.

Bucklew killed Michael Sanders in 1996. Court records show Bucklew's ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Pruitt, had moved in with Sanders in Cape Girardeau. Bucklew killed Sanders in front of Pruitt, her two daughters and Sanders' two sons. He handcuffed and beat Pruitt, drove her to a secluded area and raped her.

After a state trooper spotted the car, Bucklew shot at the trooper but missed. Bucklew later escaped from jail, hid in the home of Pruitt's mother and beat her with a hammer.

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