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U.S. high court halts execution of inmate claiming 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) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday granted an 11th-hour reprieve to a Missouri death row inmate said by his lawyers to have a rare health condition that could lead to undue suffering from a lethal injection.

Convicted rapist and murderer Russell Bucklew, 46, initially received a stay of execution in a 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the full court overturned that decision.

Hours later, however, the Supreme Court renewed the stay without comment pending further order in a notice signed by Justice Samuel Alito.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the high court was expected to consider Bucklew's case on Wednesday, adding that his death warrant remained valid until midnight Wednesday local time.

Bucklew's lawyers argued that malformed blood vessels in his head and neck could rupture under stress, causing the drugs administered during execution 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, which had been slated for early Wednesday, 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 three-judge appellate panel disagreed.

"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 panel wrote.

Koster then asked the full appeals court to reconsider the decision, and it did, vacating the stay, only to be reversed by the Supreme Court.

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)

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