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Missouri Governor Is Last Hope For Death Row Inmate

Russell Bucklew's advocates drop off signatures collected to stop his execution to the Governor's Office on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2019.
Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio
Advocates of Russell Bucklew on Thursday drop off roughly 70,000 signatures collected on a petition calling for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to stop his execution.

Missouri is scheduled to execute Russell Bucklew by injection on Tuesday, but his advocates want Gov. Mike Parson to stop it because they say a medical condition would make him endure needless pain. 

The Cape Girardeau man was convicted of murder, rape and kidnapping in 1997. His lawyers and advocates are not challenging his guilt, but instead say Bucklew’s rare medical condition would cause him to suffer cruel and unusual punishment. 

Bucklew has a condition that causes blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck and throat. A medical exam completed by Joel Zivot, an associate professor at Emory University’s School of Medicine, concluded that Bucklew had a “very high risk” of choking to death on his own blood if given a lethal injection. This could happen as a result of his tumors rupturing, and Bucklew “would experience feelings of suffocation and extreme and excruciating pain.”

Bucklew requested alternate means of execution, suggesting death by gas chamber instead. The request made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was denied in April. 

Russell Bucklew is shown in a Missouri Department of Corrections photo taken on February 9, 2014.
Credit Missouri Department of Corrections
Russell Bucklew is shown in a Missouri Department of Corrections photo taken on Feb. 9, 2014.

“The United States Supreme Court said that he’s not entitled to any different kind of execution than anybody else would be, and so that execution is set to be carried out on Oct. 1,” said Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who argued the state’s case. 

Missouri doesn’t have a working gas chamber and hasn’t used any other form of execution since 1989. Schmitt said that’s why the Supreme Court issued its ruling.

“The Supreme Court weighed in on that specifically,” he said. “That someone who’s committed heinous acts of violence and killed other human beings isn’t entitled to pick the execution method.” 

Parson’s office released a statement that said “the Governor takes seriously both his duty and responsibility to see that lawfully entered capital sentences are carried out in accordance with state law. Each case of capital punishment will be thoroughly reviewed before any decision for pardon or clemency is made. Governor Parson has consistently supported capital punishment when merited by the circumstances and all other legal remedies have been exhausted and when due process has been satisfied.”

The ACLU and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty collected roughly 70,000 signatures on a Change.org petition to stop Bucklew’s execution, which they call “torturous.” The petition was given to Parson’s office on Thursday.

“The application of the death penalty is not going to bring justice for the murder that occured,” said Elyse Max of MADP.

Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel said if Bucklew is executed by injection, this will likely become a much bigger issue. 

“As I understand it, there will be an international inquiry as to whether Missouri has violated human rights laws by executing a man in Mr. Bucklew’s condition,” he said. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., has also been advocating for Bucklew’s clemency. 

Max and Chapel said the governor’s staff has met with advocates of Bucklew. They say they are remaining hopeful that Parson will grant clemency. 

“He’s got the job of being a backstop to the courts when the courts are trying to make our state implicit in this inhumane act,” Max said. “I don’t think that he probably wants Missouri to be a stain for the nation in this way."

The last execution in Missouri took place in January 2017.

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

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Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.