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Missouri death row inmate spared yet again

Just hours before the deadline on Russell Bucklew's death warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily spared the him from facing execution.
A group of death penalty opponents hold a vigil Tuesday, May 20, 2014, outside the prison where Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew was scheduled to be executed in Bonne Terre, Mo.

Just hours before the deadline on Russell Bucklew's death warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday night temporarily spared the condemned Missouri inmate from facing execution over secrecy surrounding the state's lethal injection protocol.

Bucklew’s lawyers, who argued that a rare birth defect would lead to a “tortuous death” and contested the state's refusal to disclose the source and composition of the lethal drug, said they were “extremely pleased” by the Supreme Court decision. 

"What this means is that the appeals court will hear Mr. Bucklew's claims under the Eight Amendment that he faced a great likelihood of a prolonged and tortuous execution because of the unique and severe medical condition that causes vascular tumors to grow in his head and throat," Bucklew's attorney, Cheryl Pilate, said in a statement.

A spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the state was going to stand down on further litigation Wednesday night and witnesses for the execution were sent home following the high-court's ruling, the Associated Press reported.
"This is something the attorney general's office is going to have to respond to and take up in court. As a result, we will stand down tonight," Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Mike O'Connell told the AP. 

Once again, the final hours before Bucklew's scheduled execution have played out like a tennis match of legal maneuvers to decide his fate.

Bucklew was just a few hours away from seeing the death chamber at 12:01 a.m. CT Wednesday when a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put his execution on hold, ruling that the state failed to disprove that the inmate would suffer from complications caused by his condition.

The Missouri attorney general swiftly appealed and called for a hearing by the full 8th Circuit panel, which then reversed the halt on Bucklew's death.

Then, with just over an hour before the death row inmate was to be put to death, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito intervened, and called off the execution.

In a sworn affidavit, Dr. Joel Zivot of Emory University warned that Bucklew “will be at great risk of choking and suffocating because of his partially obstructed airway and complications caused” by his condition.

Bucklew was convicted in the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders, a man who was protecting Bucklew’s ex-girlfriend whom Bucklew had raped and kidnapped.

Bucklew's Missouri execution would be the first since a botched execution in Oklahoma raised alarms for states across the country that still support capital punishment. Last month, Clayton Lockett was injected with a three-drug cocktail when his vein apparently collapsed. He died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.