Supreme Court rules man can be executed by lethal injection after claim it would cause 'severe pain'

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday that a Missouri man can be executed by lethal injection after he argued that a medical condition would cause him "severe pain" during the procedure.

Russell Bucklew, who was convicted of murder, kidnapping and rape, appealed his planned execution, claiming it would violate his Eighth Amendment rights protecting him against "cruel and unusual punishment."


Justice Neil Gorsuch, however, wrote in the court’s opinion that justices “can discern no lawful basis” for blocking Bucklew’s execution.

Bucklew had been convicted in the 1996 kidnapping and rape of his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Ray, and the murder of Michael Sanders, a neighbor who Ray was staying with at the time. Bucklew's execution was originally scheduled for May 2014.

He suffers from a condition known as cavernous hemangioma, in which tumors grow in his head, neck and throat. He argued that the chemical used in the injection, pentobarbital, would cause the tumors to rupture and suffocate him during his execution, causing him "excruciating pain."

The Supreme Court last year had granted a stay of execution in his case.

But Gorsuch wrote in his opinion issued Monday that the Eighth Amendment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death — something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.”

Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law On The Money: Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' | Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag MORE joined in Gorsuch’s opinion. Thomas and Kavanaugh also each wrote a concurring opinion.

Gorsuch also challenged Bucklew’s claim that he should not be responsible for determining an alternative form of execution.

The justice noted in the opinion that Bucklew, who initially resisted a lower court’s request that he offer another execution option but later said that nitrogen gas could be used, had claimed that he would suffer “prolonged feelings of suffocation and excruciating pain” during the “twilight stage” of his execution by lethal injection, before he was fully unconscious.

But Gorsuch said the same pain would still be experienced if gas was used instead, although for a shorter period of time.

“In light of this, we see little likelihood that an inmate facing a serious risk of pain will be unable to identify an available alternative—assuming, of course, that the inmate is more interested in avoiding unnecessary pain than in delaying his execution,” Gorsuch wrote.

In the court’s dissenting option, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Bucklew “cites evidence that executing him by lethal injection will cause the tumors that grow in his throat to rupture during his execution, causing him to sputter, choke, and suffocate on his own blood for up to several minutes before he dies.”

“That evidence establishes at this stage of the proceedings that executing Bucklew by lethal injection risks subjecting him to constitutionally impermissible suffering,” he wrote, saying that allowing him to be executed in that manner “violates the clear command of the Eighth Amendment.”

And Breyer disputed Gorsuch’s argument that Bucklew did not identify an alternative form of execution, saying that the convict had provided reports showing how the lethal gas could be simply and painlessly used in the execution and that the method is permitted under the state's law.

Breyer was partially joined in his dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor also filed a separate dissenting opinion.

Breyer wrote that by asking Bucklew to provide an alternative form of execution, the court would create “what, in a case like this one, would amount to an insurmountable hurdle for prisoners like Bucklew.”

“That hurdle, I fear, could permit States to execute even those who will endure the most serious pain and suffering, irrespective of how exceptional their case and irrespective of how thoroughly they prove it,” the justice wrote. “I cannot reconcile the majority’s decision with a constitutional Amendment that forbids all ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”

Updated at 11:20 a.m.