Russell Bucklew’s girlfriend broke up with him, so he threatened her. She ran to a neighbor’s house, but Bucklew chased her down. First he shot the neighbor dead. Then he beat his girlfriend and raped her. Police arrested him after a shootout, but Bucklew eventually escaped so he could attack his girlfriend’s mother with a hammer.
Bucklew was tried and convicted, then sentenced to death under Missouri law. Does this conduct, once proven in court, warrant the death penalty? Personally, I would prefer the bar to be set a bit higher, but I’m not disturbed, as a member of society, to be partially responsible for Bucklew’s demise. He made it clear that he has no intention of abiding by the social contract, and society has no obligation to let him keep breathing.
Two weeks before his schedule execution, Bucklew raised a medical condition as a unique barrier for the use on lethal injection on him, as described by the Court:
“Mr. Bucklew suffers from a disease called cavernous hemangioma, which causes vascular tumors— clumps of blood vessels—to grow in his head, neck, and throat. His complaint alleged that this condition could prevent the pentobarbital from circulating properly in his body; that the use of a chemical dye to flush the intrave- nous line could cause his blood pressure to spike and his tumors to rupture; and that pentobarbital could interact adversely with his other medications.”
Based on this, his lawyers argued that for Missouri to use its standard drug to kill him violated the Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment.” In its 5-4 ruling this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a “painless death” in executions. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the familiar conservative majority, argued that Russell Bucklew’s rare medical condition raising the danger of hemorrhage and choking does not constitute a constitutional barrier to execution.
That “serial rapist” Brett Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion emphasizing that Bucklew had the burden to propose a practical and legal execution method if his argument was to prevail, and didn’t. Kavanaugh wrote in part, “An inmate who contends that a particular method of execution is very likely to cause him severe pain should ordinarily be able to plead some alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain.” The implication is that this wasn’t a good faith claim by Bucklew, but a stalling tactic.
Gorsuch wrote in part, after pointing out that many methods of execution have been painful in the past without the Court finding that they were “cruel and unusual,”
“What does all this tell us about how the Eighth Amendment applies to methods of execution? For one thing, it tells us that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death—something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes. Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 4). Instead, what unites the punishments the Eighth Amendment was understood to forbid, and distin- guishes them from those it was understood to allow, is that the former were long disused (unusual) forms of punishment that intensified the sentence of death with a (cruel) “‘superadd[ition]’” of “‘terror, pain, or disgrace.’”Baze, 553 U. S., at 48; accord, id., at 96 (THOMAS, J., con- curring in judgment).
This Court has yet to hold that a State’s method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual, and perhaps understandably so. Far from seeking to superadd terror, pain, or disgrace to their executions, the States have often sought more nearly the opposite . . . “
Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented vigorously, asserting that the unusual condition of his prisoner made the method cruel and unusual, because there was a “serious risk that his execution will be excruciating and grotesque.”
Are not all executions grotesque? Justice Stephen G. Breyer had no problem with the possibility that the condemned man was stalling, writing, “Today’s majority appears to believe that because “[t]he Constitution allows capital punishment,” . . . the Constitution must allow capital punishment to occur quickly.”
I see nothing wrong with speeding up the nearly endless capital punishment process. Conviction, review, appeal, then open the cell and shoot the condemned point-blank between the eyes before he knows what’s happening: quick, humane, and painless.
The opinions are fascinating and thought-provoking, and you can read them here.
Now consider the first line of Slate’s article about the opinion: “Toward the end of his appalling opinion allowing Missouri to torture a man to death…”