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U.S. appeals court halts execution of inmate with rare health defect

Death row inmate Russell Bucklew is shown in this Missouri Department of Corrections photo taken on February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Missouri Depar
Death row inmate Russell Bucklew is shown in this Missouri Department of Corrections photo taken on February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Missouri Depar

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday halted the planned execution of a Missouri death row inmate whose lawyers have said suffers from a rare health condition that could lead to pain and suffocation during a lethal injection.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted the stay to convicted rapist and murderer Russell Bucklew, 46, just hours before he was scheduled to be put to death.

"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 court wrote.

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

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 Eighth Circuit 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 appeals court wrote.

The Missouri Attorney General's office was not immediately available for comment.

The death penalty in the United States has come under fresh scrutiny since 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.

Bucklew's execution would be have been the first since Lockett was put to death.

In seeking a stay, 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.

Missouri's correction 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 had surgery while under anesthesia and there is no reason to believe anesthesia won't be effective 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 and Ken Wills)

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