The machinery of death is back to work in Missouri as the court has issued an execution date of Oct. 1 for Russell Bucklew. Missouri has not carried out an execution since 2017. His previous execution dates in 2014 and 2018 were stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court because of his rare medical condition that could cause him great pain during the execution process. Bucklew faces a heightened risk of a botched execution due to a medical condition and Missouri’s shady source of execution drugs.
Bucklew’s medical condition is cavernous hemangioma, which causes weakened and malformed blood vessels. During the execution process, tumors in his nose and throat could rupture and bleed. And because of his condition, lethal injection drugs may not circulate properly. Anesthesia could be rendered ineffective, and he could choke and slowly bleed to death.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court (Bucklew v. Precythe) upheld the application of the death penalty to a man whose face will likely explode in blood during his execution and created a medieval standard for evaluating the cruel and unusual nature of his punishment.
The primary text employed by the court to define the terms “cruel and unusual” is a dictionary from 1769. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England indicates those terms only prohibit actions that “savored of torture or cruelty.” Examples were
“‘disgusting’ practices as dragging and quartering the prisoner to the place of execution, disemboweling, quartering, public dissection, and burning alive.” So, now, our standard for evaluating cruelty whittles down to whether the state intended to add terror to the method of execution?
Bucklew was convicted and sentenced to death by a Boone County jury in 1997 for killing a romantic rival, Michael Sanders. He has been in prison for two decades now. Execution will not restore or undo the harm he caused so long ago. One of the state’s primary arguments in favor of death was the notion that he posed a danger to other inmates and corrections personnel. Bucklew is not the person portrayed by prosecutors. He was misdiagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder when, in fact, he had a prescription opioid addiction. He is not a threat to the safety of others and has had no violent conduct violations the past 20 years he has been incarcerated.
We do not ask that he be exempt from accountability for his crimes — we only ask that Missouri avoid its own horrific display of how the state can use its power to take life so inhumanely. Gov. Mike Parson can choose to commute Bucklew’s sentence to life without parole, or move forward and carry out what will be a gruesome and torturous execution. On Thursday, leaders and volunteers from the ACLU and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty will be on the ground delivering almost 60,000 petitions to Gov. Parson asking him to commute Bucklew’s sentence.
Our justice system, and particularly our response to violence, fails to heal our communities. We need a response to crime that does not perpetuate the cycle of violence. The death penalty is rife with errors and inconsistencies, fails to deter crime, and has a steep cost in not only financial but human terms. Death is not justice. We should not execute this man.
Elyse Max is the executive director at Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.