U.S. top court to hear Missouri murderer's lethal injection case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a Missouri murderer’s bid to avoid execution by lethal injection because it might rupture blood-filled tumors on his body due to a rare ailment, and he has suggested being put to death by gas.

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Lawyers for Russell Bucklew, 49, have argued that because of a congenital condition called cavernous hemangioma the lethal injection could cause undue agony in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The high court on March 20 issued a stay of execution just moments before Bucklew was scheduled for execution so he could pursue his appeal. The vote was 5-4, with four of the court’s five conservative justices voting to deny the request.

Bucklew’s condition has caused large, blood-filled tumors to grow on his face, head, neck and throat, according to court papers.

Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 murder in southeastern 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.

Among the questions raised by Bucklew’s lawyers is whether he is required to suggest a suitable alternative method of execution and whether lower courts were right to assume that medical personnel present at the execution were sufficiently qualified.

In Missouri, execution is authorized using either lethal injection or lethal gas. The state in practice uses only lethal injection. Bucklew has suggested being executed by gas.

Bucklew’s case represents the latest fight at the Supreme Court involving the death penalty, though he is not challenging its constitutionality. Although some of its liberal justices have raised doubts about capital punishment, the high court has steered clear of cases that directly challenge its legality.

Several high-profile executions in recent years have been plagued by problems. Most recently, Alabama on Feb. 22 abandoned the execution of convicted murderer Doyle Hamm, who has terminal cancer, after medical personnel spent more than two hours trying to insert an intravenous line for a lethal injection of drugs.

On March 6, the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Bucklew’s claim, saying he had failed to show lethal gas would not cause him similarly intense pain as lethal injection. Bucklew then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s most recent major case on death penalty procedures was in 2015 when it upheld the use of a drug employed by Oklahoma in its lethal injections. The court made clear that when challenging a method of execution, inmates must show that there is an alternative method that would be less painful.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham