Death row inmates not guaranteed a 'painless death,' Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court Building in Washington. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Supreme Court ruled on Monday (April 1) that the US Constitution does not guarantee a prisoner sentenced to capital punishment "a painless death," paving the way for the execution of a convicted murderer who sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition.

Russell Bucklew, 50, had argued that lethal injection might inflict undue agony by rupturing blood-filled tumors on his body caused by a congenital condition called cavernous hemangioma in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

In a decision written by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court ruled 5-4 that Bucklew had failed to present enough evidence for them to let him ask a lower court to allow him to be executed by lethal gas.

The court's five conservatives were in the majority and its four liberals dissented.

"The Eighth Amendment forbids 'cruel and unusual' methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death," Gorsuch, appointed to the court by President Donald Trump in 2017, wrote.

There was no evidence that Bucklew's chosen alternative - lethal gas - would be any less painful, Gorsuch added.

"As originally understood, the Eighth Amendment tolerated methods of execution, like hanging, that involved a significant risk of pain, while forbidding as cruel only those methods that intensified the death sentence by 'superadding' terror, pain or disgrace," Gorsuch wrote.

The case did not challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty itself as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In Missouri, execution is authorised using either injection or gas but the state in practice uses only lethal injection.

Bucklew's appeal neither contested his guilt nor sought to avoid execution. Lawyers for the state have said that although lethal gas is authorised, it has never been used and there are no protocols for it.

The high court in March 2018 blocked Bucklew's execution on a 5-4 vote, with four of the court's five conservative justices voting to deny the request. The conservative justice who voted with the court's four liberals to grant the stay, Anthony Kennedy, has since retired and was replaced by President Donald Trump's appointee Brett Kavanaugh.

Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 murder in southeastern Missouri of Michael Sanders, who was living with Bucklew's former girlfriend Stephanie Ray at the time.

Bucklew fatally shot Sanders at his trailer home, kidnapped and raped Ray, shot at Sanders' six-year-old son and wounded a police officer before being apprehended, according to court papers.

Bucklew's condition has caused large, blood-filled tumors to grow on his face, head, neck and throat, according to court papers.

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