The Supreme Court has declared prisoners have no constitutional right to a “painless death,” allowing the execution of a convicted murderer to go forward despite his protestations that lethal injection would cause him to suffer.
Reversing a 2018 decision, the court ruled that death-row prisoner Russell Bucklew’s constitutional protections from “cruel and unusual punishment” did not exempt him from pain and that he’d failed to present sufficient evidence that his preferred method of execution, the gas chamber, was less painful or that it could be “readily implemented.”
“The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court’s majority opinion, “something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” The court was split along party lines, with five conservatives backing the ruling and four liberals dissenting.
Bucklew sat on death row for 23 years filing one appeal after another, a fact Gorsuch mentioned in his opinion, which referenced the convicted killer “secur[ing] delay through lawsuit after lawsuit.” His latest appeal did not contest his guilt or even seek to avoid execution, but sought a stay over the constitutionality of execution by lethal injection of pentobarbital – which Bucklew’s lawyer argued would rupture tumors in the man’s face, neck, throat, and head caused by cavernous hemangioma, a rare medical condition, and therefore constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Gorsuch and the other conservative justices were unduly “dismissive” in assuming Bucklew’s appeals were meant as a delaying tactic, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion. While the court stayed his execution in 2018, two justices have retired since then and been replaced with Trump appointees Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Bucklew was convicted of shooting and killing Michael Sanders, the live-in boyfriend of Bucklew’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie Ray, kidnapping and raping Ray, shooting at Sanders’ young son, and wounding a police officer – in 1996. By 2008, he had exhausted his appeals, as well as federal and state habeas corpus challenges. Since then, repeated lawsuits have kept him out of the execution chamber.