SCOTUS Update: Bucklew v. Precythe
Updated: Oct 19
The death penalty has reserved a frequent spot in the Supreme Court docket; the most recent case in 2014 addressed botched injections. On November 6, 2018, legal injection returned to the Court in Bucklew v. Precythe. This case presents a unique question – what should a state do when a normally painless procedure could cause immense pain and suffering to an individual inmate?
Russell Bucklew, an inmate on Missouri’s death row, suffers from a very rare congenital medical condition called cavernous hemangioma. Essentially, his condition causes blood-filled tumors to form across his body; when exposed to Missouri’s lethal injection drugs, those tumors could potentially rupture, inflicting immense pain on Bucklew. Additionally, the injection could cause him to choke on his own blood in the process.
Bucklew’s lawyer, Robert Hochman, asks that Missouri replace the injection procedure with a nitrogen gas chamber, which would alleviate any extraneous pain for Bucklew. If that request is denied, Hochman asks that the prison provide the administering staff with a complete copy of Bucklew’s medical records so they are capable of administering the drugs properly to Bucklew. Currently, Missouri officials refuse to do so, citing expert testimony which concluded that Bucklew’s medical claim is unlikely. State officials do not offer any additional explanation for their hesitance to switch procedures.
Bucklew’s individual circumstances present an immensely difficult question to the Court. On one hand, many of the justices, notably the Court’s newest justice Kavanaugh, seem sympathetic to Bucklew’s condition and are concerned about the potential violation to his 6th Amendment rights. However, precedent confines the Court as earlier cases emphasize the need to defer to states in determining appropriate methods of execution.
Justice Breyer expressed his desire for more information before the Court’s final vote. He suggested that the case be remanded for a additional hearing to learn more specifics on Bucklew’s condition and ways to minimize his pain during the execution. The state pushed back against this proposition, claiming the case had already experienced too many delays. Nevertheless, if Kavanaugh remains sympathetic to Bucklew’s condition, Breyer may have enough votes to be successful. Bucklew’s fate should be decided within the new few months.