Little has been made of a capital punishment case in Missouri — one that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this spring — but its implications could be far-reaching and potentially devastating.
Russell Bucklew is set to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday after Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican and supporter of the death penalty, denied his clemency request, according to The Missouri Times. Bucklew was convicted in 1997 of kidnapping, beating, and raping his former girlfriend, fatally shooting her new boyfriend, and opening fire on his 6-year-old son, whom he missed.
The now-51-year-old inmate previously appealed his method of execution, his lawyers citing his rare medical condition, cavernous hemangioma. Lethal injection could be “excruciatingly painful,” according to his attorneys, because it may cause a tumor in his throat to burst.
So it begs the question: setting aside the ethical and moral arguments about the death penalty, is it right for Bucklew to be executed by lethal injection, given it could, in his case, result in immense pain?
The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” and for good reason: the amendment recognizes the innate value of human life. In fact, in arguments both for and against the death penalty, every reason hinges on the importance of humanity. Scripture says human beings are made in the image of God, calls us “wonderful,” and tells us that, even before we were conceived, God knew us and loved us. (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139:14; Jeremiah 1:5).
Bucklew’s case is so unique, it made it all the way to the highest court in the land. In April, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that, when a convict sentenced to death challenges the state’s method of execution, claiming it would cause excessive pain, the inmate must then show a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.” Bucklew failed to meet that standard. In Missouri, executions are carried out by gas or lethal injection. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, arguing the Eighth Amendment “forbids ‘cruel and unusual’ methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”
In addition, though, to Bucklew, his execution could cause significant psychological and emotional harm to the corrections personnel responsible for carrying out his lethal injection, as well as to the journalists who have to report on his death.
Moving forward with Bucklew’s execution as planned, the convict’s lawyers said, would “traumatize corrections personnel and witnesses alike.”
His legal team has also argued Bucklew is a “fundamentally different person” now, adding in a letter to Parson their client is “incredibly remorseful for his conduct and the pain and suffering he caused.”
Laurence E. Komp, a public defender representing Bucklew, said he is “disappointed” by Parson’s refusal to grant clemency.
“We readily acknowledge that this is a horrible tragedy, and there is a just punishment,” Komp told the Times. “Our dispute is that the appropriate punishment in this case is not the death penalty.”
At this point, it’s unlikely Bucklew will receive a stay of execution or Parson will change his mind, but it’s a case that should cause all of us to think — to consider its consequences and to examine the moral implications it carries with it. Is the death penalty at all costs the right moral path, particularly given there’s no real concrete evidence to suggest lethal injection is, in fact, superior in the search for more humane forms of capital punishment?