The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution of a Missouri death-row inmate with a birth defect less than two hours before his scheduled lethal injection.
The Tuesday night order by Justice Samuel Alito capped a long night of legal maneuvers. The full court will look at death-row inmate's Russell Bucklew's case on Wednesday.
Bucklew's death warrant remains in effect until 12:01 a.m. Thursday so he could be executed at any point before then if he exhausts all appeals.
Bucklew — who murdered a man in front of his kids, kidnapped and raped his ex-girlfriend, and shot at a cop — contends a rare illness would make a lethal injection excruciating, in violation of the Constitution.
Early in the evening, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided 2-1 that the state had failed to show that Bucklew was wrong and put the execution on hold.
"Bucklew's unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions," the justices wrote.
"The irreparable harm to Bucklew is great in comparison to the harm to the state from staying the execution," they concluded.
The Missouri attorney general swiftly filed papers asking for a hearing by the full 8th Circuit panel of judges, which then vacated the stay. Soon after, Alito put the execution back on hold.
Bucklew suffers from a medical condition called cavernous hemangioma — which creates large masses in his head and neck.
He argued that the tumors could prevent the drug from circulating properly, prolonging his death and causing excruciating pain in violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Dorothy Sanders, the mother of Bucklew's murder victim, Michael Sanders, was upset by the last-minute delay.
"I'm not too thrilled," she said, declining to comment further.
If the execution does happen, Bucklew, 46, will become the first inmate executed since the bungled lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma — a debacle that prompted the White House to order a review of state procedures.
Lockett appeared to regain consciousness and struggle in pain while strapped to the gurney midway through the injection, which involved a new three-drug protocol.
Prison officials said at the time that his vein collapsed, but an investigation into what went wrong has not been completed.
Lockett's death brought more attention to the controversy over state policies that keep their lethal-injection suppliers — often less-regulated compounding pharmacies — anonymous.
Bucklew's challenge cited Missouri's drug secrecy but was more focused on his vascular disorder, which his lawyers argued would "almost inevitably lead to a bloody, prolonged and excruciating execution."
A lower court ruled that if Bucklew wanted to oppose a shot of pentobarbital, he had to propose a more humane method for his own execution.
But the appeals panel that issued the first stay said that wasn't necessary since he was not making a broad challenge to the protocol — only arguing that his unique medical condition would make a lethal injection cruel in his case.
The judges also faulted Missouri for failing to carry out a "meaningful assessment" of how its protocol might be affected by his illness.
In an interview last week, Bucklew told the Associated Press that he feared the execution would go wrong.
"I'm worried it could be painful," he said in a phone interview from prison.
"I'm worried about being brain-dead. I understand the family (of the victim) wants closure, but we're victimizing my family here, too."
The children of Bucklew's victim, Michael Sanders, plan to be in the death chamber if the execution takes place.
Sanders was killed because he opened his home to Bucklew's ex-girlfriend after she was repeatedly threatened by Bucklew. Bucklew later escaped from jail and attacked the former girlfriend's mother with a hammer.
"It's up to God what God does with him," Sanders' mother, Dorothy, told the Southeast Missourian newspaper last week.
"I don't forgive the guy, because I don't think I could ever do that, even though I'm supposed to. I'll just be glad when it's over with and leave the rest of it up to God and let him take care of it."