A Missouri death-row prisoner whose rare medical condition, he says, risks making his execution by lethal injection a gruesome and grisly spectacle is seeking clemency from Missouri Governor Mike Parson ahead of his October 1, 2019 execution date.

Russell Bucklew (pictured) suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a condition that causes blood-filled tumors to form in his head and neck. His lawyers have asked Parson to commute his death sentence on humanitarian grounds, saying his tumors are likely to burst and he is likely to suffocate and drown in his own blood if he is subjected to lethal injection. They also say that mercy is appropriate because his trial lawyers mishandled his defense and Bucklew is a “fundamentally different person” than he was when he committed the murder 23 years ago. [UPDATE: Governor Parsons denied Bucklew’s clemency petition and he was executed on October 1.]

The constitutionality of Bucklew’s execution was the subject of a controversial 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in April 2019 after he argued that execution by lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment for a person with his medical condition. Permitting the execution to go forward, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the Court majority, “[t]he Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.” For an execution method to be considered unconstitutionally cruel, Gorsuch wrote, it must “intensif[y] the death sentence by ‘superadding’ terror, pain, or disgrace” to the punishment. This, the Court said, requires the prisoner to show that the state had available to it a “feasible and readily implemented alternative method [of execution] … that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain” and that, “without a legitimate penological reason,” the state had refused to adopt that method. The Court ruled that Bucklew had not proven that Missouri had a feasible alternative method to execute him.

Bucklew’s clemency petition argues not only that his execution by lethal injection would be excruciating, but that, “Russell’s compromised medical condition make it highly likely that the state’s protocol will cause a visually gruesome execution that will traumatize corrections personnel and witnesses alike.” His lawyers suggest that the spectacle of such an execution could have ongoing ramifications for the state: “The aftermath of Russell’s execution will have a lasting impact on those present to witness the moment and will likely affect the public’s attitude about the death penalty and, in particular, how this state carries out the ultimate punishment.”

The clemency petition also presents mitigating evidence that Bucklew’s trial attorneys failed to uncover. While his parents characterized his upbringing as “tranquil” and “idyllic,” interviews with other family members and friends revealed that this characterization was false and self-serving. Instead, they said, his father’s relentless abusiveness and extra-marital affairs contributed to Russell’s mother having a nervous breakdown and attempting suicide. At the time of his crime, Bucklew was addicted to opioid painkillers that he had been prescribed for his cavernous hemangioma, which he said affected his thinking and mood: “I felt angry from the meds. It was much harder to keep my feelings under control. I no longer feel that way and have changed a lot.” A psychiatrist who met with Bucklew only once and relied largely on conversations with his parents that misrepresented Russell’s background diagnosed Bucklew with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Prosecutors then used that diagnosis against him, arguing that Bucklew was a “sociopath” who deserved a death sentence. After being provided with further information about Bucklew, the psychiatrist retracted the diagnosis. Bucklew’s current attorneys also discovered that his previous clemency attorney, John Simon, had borrowed $27,000 from Bucklew’s parents, possibly contributing to his failure to fully investigate Bucklew’s upbringing.

Bucklew’s clemency plea has received support from Missouri bishops, The Kansas City Star, and the ACLU. In a letter to the governor, Missouri’s four Catholic bishops said, “[a]s Catholic bishops, we have consistently opposed the use of the death penalty. Evidence shows that the death penalty is often unfair and biased in its application. By ending the use of the death penalty, we can hopefully begin to break the cycle of violence.” They added that Bucklew’s “particular medical situation warrants special consideration.” In an editorial, The Kansas City Star urged Governor Parson to reduce Bucklew’s sentence, saying, “a grisly death at our collective hand is a dishonorable answer to 51-year-old Bucklew’s bloody behavior 23 years ago.” The ACLU collected 30,000 signatures in support of Bucklew, and is also presenting his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking a determination that his execution would violate U.S. treaty obligations. Bucklew himself provided a statement to The Appeal, saying, “The law doesn’t take into consideration that with age comes wisdom. I am absolutely a different person. I am more even-keeled than I was when I was younger. I feel terrible about what happened to Stephanie Ray and Michael Sanders.”