Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Delay of Missouri Execution Raises More Questions Than Answers

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Delay of Missouri Execution Raises More Questions Than Answers

Article excerpt

Three weeks after an execution in Oklahoma went horribly wrong, everything had to go right with Missouri's execution of Russell Bucklew.

No one on either side of the capital punishment debate wanted to see another man convulsing in the death chamber like Clayton Lockett, who died April 29 of a heart attack 43 minutes after his execution started because of problems giving him a lethal injection.

"I think it's pretty clear that if Bucklew's had been botched, we wouldn't see another execution for a very long time, if ever," said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, who studies the death penalty. "Even the more hard-core pro-death penalty people would have to say, 'enough.'"

It was in this environment Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to postpone killing Bucklew, whose lawyers had argued that he was at risk of an agonizing death because of a rare vascular condition.

The court didn't give a reason for sparing Bucklew. But the rare action gave the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis more time to consider arguments from his lawyers about how the execution would violate his civil rights.

A day after winning a reprieve for her client, attorney Cheryl Pilate said Thursday that she was relieved but did not yet know how the case would proceed. The Eighth Circuit could assign the case to a panel comprising some of the court's 11 judges, or hear arguments before the full court. It could also send the case to a lower court to hear more evidence.

How receptive the appeals court would be to further argument was also unknown. This is the same court that has defended the state's right to block inmates from learning who produces the drugs for lethal injections, and which vacated a stay of execution in Bucklew's case Tuesday night without comment.

"I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen when the case goes back," Pilate said.

A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the office did not yet have a plan for arguing its case in the Eighth Circuit.

AVOIDING BLAME?

The high court's order to hold off on the Bucklew execution avoided a catastrophe that could have derailed the death penalty in the U.S., and the lack of comment made it so no meaningful precedent could be applied to another case.

The prospect of another grisly American execution captured the world's attention. Problems in Oklahoma with Lockett's execution had been unexpected. But problems with Bucklew's execution would not have been.

"It gets to be more deliberate when you've been forewarned," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, a nonprofit clearinghouse for studies and reports related to capital punishment. If the execution had problems, blame "would be at the Supreme Court's door," he said. …

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