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Missouri executes killer with rare medical condition that some feared would make death painful

There were no outward signs of distress as the state used lethal injection on convicted killer Russell Bucklew.
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A Missouri man was executed Tuesday for killing a man during a violent 1996 crime spree, despite concerns that the inmate's rare medical condition would cause a gruesome lethal injection.

Russell Bucklew was executed Tuesday evening at the state prison in Bonne Terre. It was Missouri's first execution since January 2017.

Bucklew looked around and twitched his feet beneath the sheet as he lay on the gurney just before the lethal injection. He suddenly took a deep breath and all movement stopped.

Image: Russell Bucklew
Convicted killer Russell BucklewMissouri Department of Corrections via AP file

There were no outward signs of distress.

The Supreme Court in April ruled that the state could use lethal injection to execute Bucklew, saying that said the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment "does not guarantee a painless death."

Bucklew had twice previously been within hours of execution, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court grant last-minute reprieves over concerns that Bucklew might suffer during the execution process. He had a condition called cavernous hemangioma and had blood-filled tumors in his head, neck and throat.

Bucklew's attorneys said in a clemency request to Gov. Mike Parson that a throat tumor could burst, causing Bucklew to choke to death. Parson denied clemency earlier Tuesday.

Bucklew killed Michael Sanders in March 1996, raped his former girlfriend, shot a state trooper and, after escaping from jail, attacked his ex-girlfriend's mother and her boyfriend with a hammer.

All four Roman Catholic bishops in Missouri, several human rights organizations and more than 57,000 people who signed a petition turned in to the governor's office last week had asked Parson to halt the execution.

"These unstable tumors are highly likely to hemorrhage during the stress of the execution, causing Russell to cough and choke on his own blood," the clemency request states.

Missouri uses a single dose of pentobarbital as its execution drug but refuses to say where it gets it. The source is believed to be a compound pharmacy since large pharmaceutical companies prohibit the use of their drugs in executions.

It wasn't known if the Missouri Department of Corrections planned any extra precautions to address the risk that Bucklew could suffer, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Bucklew was within hours of execution in 2014 and again in 2018, only to get reprieves from the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns about whether he might suffer.

Human rights groups and death penalty opponents, including all four Roman Catholic bishops in Missouri and the American Civil Liberties Union, have urged Parson to intervene. The ACLU and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty presented the governor's office on Thursday with petitions that they say had more than 57,000 signatures.

Shortly after the 2018 reprieve, Bucklew contracted meningitis, requiring insertion of the tracheostomy tube, said one of his attorneys, Jeremy Weis. The tube is narrow and could fill with blood if the tumors burst, Weis said.

In 2017, the execution of twice-convicted killer Alva Campbell, who suffered from smoking-related breathing problems, had to be halted in Ohio when a usable vein couldn't be found to administer execution drugs. He died in 2018 at age 69.

In 2018, Alabama halted the lethal injection of Doyle Lee Hamm when the execution team had trouble getting the intravenous line connected. Hamm had damaged veins because of lymphoma, hepatitis and drug use. A doctor hired by Hamm's lawyers wrote in a report that Hamm had at least 11 puncture sites and bled heavily from his groin during the attempts to connect the line.

Bucklew's girlfriend, Stephanie Ray, left him on Valentine's Day 1996. Over the next few weeks, according to court records, he harassed her, cut her with a knife and punched her in the face. Ray feared for her life and the lives of her children, so she moved into the Cape Girardeau County mobile home that her new boyfriend, Michael Sanders, shared with his children.

On March 21, after stealing his nephew's car and taking two pistols, handcuffs and duct tape from his brother, Bucklew followed Ray to Sanders' home. Sanders confronted Bucklew with a shotgun inside the home. Bucklew fired two shots, one piercing Sanders' lung. He bled to death.

Bucklew then shot at Sanders' 6-year-old son and missed. Court records say he struck Ray in the face with the pistol, handcuffed her and dragged her to his car. He later raped Ray before heading north on Interstate 55.

A trooper spotted Bucklew's car and eventually became engaged in a gunfight near St. Louis. Both men were wounded. Bucklew later escaped from the Cape Girardeau County Jail. He attacked Ray's mother and her boyfriend with a hammer before being recaptured.