Human Rights Advocates: Prisoner's Rare Medical Condition Risks Gruesome Botched Execution in Missouri

Human rights advocates are warning that the impending execution of Russell Bucklew (pictured) in Missouri on March 20 presents a “substantially increase[d] risk of a gruesome and botched execution.” Court pleadings and a March 14 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) say that Bucklew suffers from congenital cavernous hemangioma, a rare and severe blood-vessel condition that his lawyers and doctors say compromises his veins and makes lethal injection inappropriate and potentially torturous. Bucklew’s medical condition causes large tumors of malformed blood vessels to grow on his head, face, and neck, including a vascular tumor that obstructs his airway. Dr. Joel Zivot, a board-certified anesthesiologist who reviewed Bucklew’s medical records for defense lawyers in the case said his compromised veins will likely prevent the pentobarbital Missouri uses in executions from circulating through his bloodstream as intended, risking a “prolonged and extremely painful” execution. Zivot says there is a substantial risk that Bucklew’s throat tumor may burst during the execution and that he will suffocate, choking on his own blood. Missouri first sought to execute Bucklew on May 21, 2014. At that time, his lawyers filed a challenge to the state’s lethal-injection process based on Bucklew's medical condition, and the ACLU filed a petition in the IACHR seeking precautionary measures—the international equivalent of an injunction—against the execution. The IACHR petition argued that the execution would violate international human rights proscriptions against cruel and inhumane treatment and torture. On May 19, 2014, the Missouri federal district court denied Bucklew’s execution challenge and his motion to stay his execution. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted him a stay of execution so it could consider his lethal-injection claim, but the full court, sitting en banc, vacated the stay. Bucklew then sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, which stayed his execution pending the outcome of the lethal-injection appeal in the Eighth Circuit. While the case was working its way through the federal courts, the IACHR issued precautionary measures against the United States on May 20, 2014 requesting that the U.S. comply with its human rights obligations under the charter of the Organization of American States and the American Convention on Human Rights. The IACHR directive asked the U.S. to “abstain from executing Russell Bucklew” until the human rights body could hear his case. On March 6, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Bucklew’s appeal and affirmed the district court’s ruling, concluding that “Bucklew has failed to establish that lethal injection, as applied to him, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” The ACLU then requested that the IACHR “immediately intervene” to halt Bucklew’s execution, and the human rights commission informed the U.S. government that its precautionary measures were still in effect. “This execution should not move forward,” ACLU’s Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar told Newsweek. “Because the state is pursuing lethal injection, that will most certainly cause severe pain and suffering which under international law is considered torture.” Bucklew’s scheduled execution comes on the heels of two failed executions of gravely ill prisoners in which states ignored warnings that the prisoners’ medical conditions had compromised their veins and would make it impossible for executioners to set intravenous execution lines. Nonetheless, Ohio tried and failed to execute Alva Campbell and Alabama called off the execution of Doyle Hamm after failing for more than 2 1/2 hours to obtain venous access in his lower extremities. Campbell subsequently died of his terminal illness and Hamm has sued to bar Alabama from attempting to execute him again. On March 15, Bucklew’s lawyers filed pleadings in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to stay his execution and review his case.

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Global Study Highlights Systemic Risks of Wrongful Capital Convictions

“In 2016, at least 60 prisoners were exonerated after having been condemned to death, in countries across the geographical and political spectrum,” according to a new report on wrongful capital convictions by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. The report, Justice Denied: A Global Study of Wrongful Death Row Convictions, analyzes risk factors for executing the innocent that are endemic in death penalty cases irrespective of where they are tried, and makes recommendations for systemic reform. The sixty exonerations in just one year “represent[ ] only a tiny fraction of those who are currently on death row for a crime they did not commit,” the report says. “Few innocent prisoners are able to obtain access to the courts, either because they lack lawyers or because there are no procedural mechanisms available by which they can present new evidence of innocence.” The study illustrates systemic risk factors for wrongful convictions that are present wherever capital punishment is practiced, highlighting cases from Cameroon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malawi, Nigeria, and Pakistan. According to the report, these factors include ineffective assistance of legal counsel, torture and coercion, misconduct by officials, racial and ethnic discrimination, false or misleading forensic evidence, and mistaken eyewitness identification. It recommends, among other reforms, that states provide adequate funding and training for capital defense lawyers, provide meaningful access to appellate review, allow for post-conviction DNA testing, record all police interrogations, and provide compensation to those who are exonerated. The Center chose the six countries whose systems it highlighted “not because their legal systems are uniquely flawed, or because they contribute a greater number of wrongful convictions compared to their peers,” the report says, but “because they represent a diversity of geographic regions and legal systems.” While the risk factors for wrongful capital convictions play out differently from country to country, the experience of each country illustrates the gap between the legal protections afforded on paper to those facing the death penalty and the manner in which those safeguards are implemented in practice. The report concludes: “Every country that retains the death penalty—from the poorest to the most wealthy—runs the risk that innocent persons will be executed. No criminal justice system is perfect, and the risk of error can never be entirely eliminated. The only way to completely exclude the possibility of executing the innocent is to abolish the death penalty altogether.”

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U.S. Supreme Court Stays Alabama Execution to Consider Vernon Madison's Competency to Be Executed

The United States Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Vernon Madison to consider for a second time questions related to his competency to be executed. In a 6-3 vote, with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch dissenting, the Court halted Alabama's scheduled January 25 execution of Madison "pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari" he had filed seeking review of his competency to be executed. That petition was based upon new evidence of his deteriorating mental condition and that the doctor whose opinion state courts had relied upon in finding him competent had been addicted to drugs, was forging prescriptions, and was subsequently arrested. Madison—who has no memory of the crime he committed as a result of a succession of strokes that have caused dementia—has been challenging his competency to be executed for more than two years. In May 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted Madison a stay of execution to consider his competency claim, and the Supreme Court deadlocked at 4-4 on whether to vacate that stay. The Eleventh Circuit subsequently ruled in March 2017 that Madison was incompetent to be executed, saying that the Alabama state courts had acted unreasonably in finding him competent. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision in November 2017, reinstating the state-court ruling and clearing the way for Alabama to issue the latest death warrant. After the Supreme Court's ruling, Madison's attorneys returned to the state courts with the new evidence. The state court, once again, denied him relief, leading to Madison's request to the Supreme Court for a stay. The stay will provide the Court time to review two separate petitions filed by Madison's lawyers. The first affords the Court the opportunity to address whether the Eighth Amendment permits "the State to execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him without memory of his commission of the capital offense." The second petition challenges the constitutionality of Madison's death sentence itself. Madison was sentenced to death by an Alabama trial judge despite the jury's recommendation that he receive a life sentence. Since the time of his sentence, Alabama has repealed the portion of its law permitting "judicial override" of a jury's life recommendation, and no state now authorizes that practice. Madison's execution date has attracted international attention because of his severely impaired mental condition. On January 24, David O'Sullivan, the European Union's Ambassador to the United States, wrote to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey with "an urgent humanitarian appeal" for her to reconsider the state's decision to execute Madison, citing "his major neurocognitive disorder." The letter "note[d] with concern that there is undisputed evidence that Mr. Madison has suffered multiple strokes, including a thalamic stroke resulting in encephalomalacia, that have damaged multiple parts of his brain, including those responsible for memory." It also reminded Alabama that "[t]he execution of persons suffering from any mental illness or having an intellectual disability is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights, as set forth in several international human rights instruments." Madison's lead counsel, Bryan Stevenson, said that he was "thrilled" by the Court's decision to grant a stay and that "[k]illing a fragile man suffering from dementia is unnecessary and cruel."

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