When death becomes torture: Death row inmate Russell Bucklew's execution could be the most horrific in US history
The death penalty has in recent years been criticized as being outdated, misguided and barbaric, and it is about to get even more gruesome.
Missouri death row inmate Russell "Rusty" Bucklew is set to be strapped to the gurney on October 1 but what is even more terrifying than his death is the way he could possibly die.
Bucklew has a medical condition called cavernous hemangioma, a rare congenital disease that causes blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck, and throat.
In what would become one of the most horrific executions in the history of the United States, the tumors would most likely burst during his execution which may cause him to hemorrhage, choke, and suffocate on his own blood.
With his execution day gnawing its way to him, the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting for mercy on Bucklew's behalf.
There has never been a case like Bucklew's till date and it is believed it will likely never happen again.
However, there have been cases where lives of death row inmates were spared as the individual's physical frailty would amount to torture, Jeremy Weis, Assistant Federal Public Defender, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). Weis has been working on the case since 2017.
Clemency has been granted in special cases
In 2018, the State of Alabama chose not to proceed with the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm who was undergoing chemotherapy to stem the tide of cancer. Despite months of warning by Hamm's attorney and human rights observers, and a decades' long legal battle, the Alabama Department of Corrections attempted to execute Hamm on February 22, 2018. The unsuccessful execution attempt lasted nearly three hours. The execution was dropped after it became obvious that it would be torture to set the IV line into his body. Hamm had been convicted of robbery and murder.
Similarly, Weis pointed out, the State of Ohio called off the 2017 execution of Alva Campbell when prison officials were unable to insert an IV. The state spared Campbell’s life even though the state had already initiated the execution protocol and despite him being denied clemency by then-Governor John Kasich. Campbell was convicted of murder and later died of natural causes.
Discrepancies in Bucklew's case
Bucklew was convicted and sentenced to death for a 1996 rape, murder and kidnapping. Bucklew shot Michael Sanders, 27, at Hickory Hollow trailer park in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri and then kidnapped, beat, and raped his ex Stephanie Pruitt, 21.
Bucklew's execution is scheduled for October 1. He is meant to die by lethal injection.
Weis said that Bucklew was not well-served by his appointed counsel at trial or on appeal. "His trial team undertook only a bare-bones approach to developing mitigation evidence or to prepare the case for sentencing. As a result, they were unable to counter the state’s false narrative that Mr. Bucklew was an outlier in his family and just a bad person. In reality, the seeds for Mr. Bucklew’s opioid addiction came from a long family history with substance abuse that would have significantly countered the state’s false and damaging narrative," he said.
The defense team had failed to provide their own expert with key facts in his development that would have rendered their own diagnosis to be untrue. Evidence was overlooked that would have been found by competent counsel, said Weis, that could have changed the course of history. He said that it Bucklew was portrayed as a selfish man who cared only for himself and was dangerous to other inmates and guards. He has an unblemished prison record, said Weis.
Weis also noted that Bucklew's court-appointed clemency counsel set back his mitigation investigation for years to come, compromising the investigation, eventually dropping it. "In 2018, just weeks before his scheduled execution, counsel discovered that one of his prior clemency counsel had been taking personal loans from the Bucklew family. These loans – totaling over $40,000 – were made without Mr. Bucklew’s knowledge and the attorney actively hid their existence from his client and ordered the family to do the same," he said.
The counsel, in fear that the loans would stop coming, couldn't conduct independent social history investigation.
Two executions canceled
Bucklew has had two previously scheduled executions stayed—one in 2014 and another in 2018. The 2014 execution was stayed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and then by the Supreme Court of the United States when the 8th Circuit lifted their stay. The stay was granted over concerns about the possibility of Russell’s 8th Amendment rights being violated due to his rare medical condition.
His 2018 execution was also stayed by the Supreme Court of the United States, in order to allow time for them to consider his appeal.
His execution this time with this condition would violate both the United States and Missouri constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, said Weis. "There are better alternatives available to the state but they have steadfastly refused to consider or alter their protocols in an unrelenting effort to punish Mr. Bucklew in the cruelest and inhumane manner possible," he said.
Grant clemency to Russell Bucklew
Weis and the team of attorney are hoping that the Missouri Governor Parson will grant Bucklew executive clemency, especially since he has a 23-year prison record showing that he is not dangerous to staff and inmates. "This is despite the fact that the state’s primary argument for the death penalty was that he would pose a significant risk to others were he sentenced to life imprisonment," Weis said.
He also feared that the execution would become a "spectacle for the state that would set-back their efforts to move forward with other executions in the future."
The execution of Clayton Lockett who suffered a heart attack after being given the lethal injection in Oklahoma in 2014 "revealed the horrific nature of the state’s execution process", Weis said. "Missouri could expect a similar delay in carrying out executions as a result of imposing the death sentence on Mr. Bucklew."
The legal team is currently preparing the petition for executive clemency and it will be submitted in mid-September.