Execution date set for Missouri inmate with rare health condition

Russell Bucklew

Missouri Department of Corrections

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday set a March execution date for Russell Bucklew, a convicted killer who narrowly escaped execution three years ago because of a rare medical condition that raised the possibility that the lethal drug could cause him to suffer.

Bucklew, 49, is scheduled to die by injection March 20 for killing a man in 1996 during a violent crime spree.

He was moments away from execution in May 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court halted it and sent the case back to a lower federal court amid concerns about Bucklew's medical condition.

Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare ailment that causes weakened and malformed blood vessels, as well as tumors in his nose and throat. His attorney, Cheryl Pilate, said Missouri's execution method could cause Bucklew's death to rise to the level of unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

"We believe that the setting of the date at this time is premature," Pilate said in a statement.

Loree Anne Paradise, spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, said the execution date is "the subject of litigation" and declined comment on the merits of the case.

The Missouri attorney general's office did not immediately return an email message seeking comment.

In April 2014, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett's vein collapsed, and he writhed on the gurney before dying of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after the start of the procedure.

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

None of the 20 inmates executed since Missouri switched form a three-drug protocol to pentobarbital in 2013 have shown obvious signs of pain or suffering.

Still, death penalty opponents say the secrecy makes it impossible to ensure the drugs couldn't cause an inmate to endure an agonizing death.

In March 1996, Bucklew was angry at his girlfriend, Stephanie Pruitt, for leaving him and moving in with Michael Sanders of Cape Girardeau. Bucklew tracked Pruitt down at Sanders' home and 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.