Federal appeals court halts Missouri execution over prisoner's rare health condition
Undated photograph courtesy of the California Department of Corrections shows the interior of the San Quentin Prison execution chamber [AFP]

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday halted the execution of a Missouri death row inmate just hours before his scheduled lethal injection because he has a rare health condition that could lead to pain and suffocation.

Convicted rapist and murderer Russell Bucklew, 46, received a stay of execution in a 2-1 ruling by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"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 appellate panel wrote.

Lawyers for Bucklew argued that malformed blood vessels in Bucklew's head and neck could rupture under stress, causing the lethal drugs to circulate improperly and cause him undue suffering. The condition is called cavernous hemangioma.

Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders in southeastern Missouri, and the kidnapping and rape of Stephanie Ray, an ex-girlfriend who had been seeing Sanders.

Bucklew's execution would have been the first since a botched execution in Oklahoma that brought fresh scrutiny of the death penalty in the United States.

An Oklahoma inmate, Clayton Lockett, writhed in pain when a needle became dislodged from his vein during an attempted lethal injection on April 29. The execution was halted but Lockett died of a heart attack.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Phillips had on Monday denied the stay and a request to have his execution videotaped, ruling there was insufficient evidence to suggest Bucklew would suffer severe and needless pain. But the appeals court disagreed.

"We also conclude that the irreparable harm to Bucklew is great in comparison to the harm to the state from staying the execution," the court said.

The Missouri attorney general responded by asking the appeals court to reconsider its decision.

Missouri's corrections department said in court papers that Bucklew's condition dates back many years and he did not have to wait until days before his execution to raise the issue.

He has undergone surgery while under anesthesia, and there is no reason to believe anesthesia would be ineffective prior to administering the lethal drugs, the department said.

The department also has opposed the videotaping of the execution, saying that allowing it "could lead us back to the days of executions as public spectacles."

(Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by David Bailey, Eric Walsh, Bernard Orr, Ken Wills and Lisa Shumaker)

[Image via Agence France-Presse]