The U.S. Supreme Court said Missouri can execute an inmate who argued that his rare medical condition will result in severe pain if he is given death-causing drugs.
The justices ruled 5-4 Monday against inmate Russell Bucklew, who is on death row for a 1996 murder. A Boone County jury convicted him in 1997 of first-degree murder in the killing of Michael Sanders in Cape Girardeau County.
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court’s five conservative justices rejects Bucklew’s argument that subjecting him to lethal injection could cause a tumor in his throat to burst and make him choke on his own blood. Bucklew argued that would violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Bucklew had suggested he could be executed using nitrogen gas.
Gorsuch wrote that the Eighth Amendment, outlawing cruel and unusual punishment, applied to any form of punishment that “‘superadds’ pain well beyond what’s needed to effectuate a death penalty,” such as burning someone at the stake.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Instead, what unites the punishments the Eighth Amendment was understood to forbid, and distinguishes them from those it was understood to allow, is that the former were long disused (unusual) forms of punishment that intensified the sentence of death with a (cruel) “‘superadd[ition]'” of “‘terror, pain, or disgrace.'”
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office praised the decision on Monday.
“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,” spokesman Chris Nuelle said. “With today’s ruling, we’re one step closer to justice.”
Justice Steven Breyer wrote that Bucklew’s medical condition could cause excruciating pain for Bucklew due to the way Missouri executes inmates. Dr. Joel Zivot, and anaestheseologist, wrote that Bucklew could be aware of his choking for several minutes after the state injected him with pentobarbital.
“In my view, executing Bucklew by forcing him to choke on his grossly enlarged uvula and suffocate on his blood would exceed ‘the limits of civilized standards,'” Breyer wrote.
The decision could have an effect on the future of a Columbia death penalty case. Ernest Lee Johnson is challenging his execution by lethal injection, claiming the drug could cause the remnants of a brain tumor to cause him pain. In January, the attorney general appealed an 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to let his lawsuit continue.
Johnson’s attorney Brian Gaddy told ABC 17 News that he was still reviewing the court’s decision. In court filings with the Supreme Court, Gaddy argued that the two cases are different. Bucklew’s case had gone much further than Johnson’s, including depositions and discovery, when a judge ruled in favor of the state’s motion for summary judgement. Both sides of Johnson’s case are arguing over Missouri’s motion to dismiss, and centers around what needs to be claimed in the lawsuit in order to proceed.