Legal Battles

Texas Attorney General Paxton Gloats After Cruel and Unusual Supreme Court Decision

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is celebrating because a Missouri man might choke to death on his own blood.

Paxton led a 16-state coalition last year asking the U.S. Supreme Court to deny Russell Bucklew's death row appeal and uphold Missouri's lethal injection procedures, claiming that upholding Bucklew's appeal would open new avenues for death row prisoners to delay their sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the appeal this week.

“Prisoners would challenge each alternative method subsequently adopted by the state as lacking in some way due to the prisoner’s unique anatomy, history, or combination of conditions,” Paxton wrote.

Bucklew has cavernous hemangioma, a rare, congenital disease that has caused blood-filled tumors to grow in his head and throat. His Supreme Court brief argues that one or more of the tumors could rupture after he is given the lethal injection drugs, causing Bucklew to choke to death on his blood.

Writing for the four-vote minority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that Bucklew proved to the court that he could "sputter, choke, and suffocate on his own blood for up to several minutes before he dies,” causing his execution to violate the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's first nominee to the Supreme Court, disagreed.

“The Eighth Amendment has never been understood to guarantee a condemned inmate a painless death.” — Neil Gorsuch

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“The Eighth Amendment has never been understood to guarantee a condemned inmate a painless death,” Gorsuch said as he announced the court's decision to let Bucklew's execution go forward. “That’s a luxury not guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.”

Paxton celebrated Gorsuch's opinion for ensuring that states can continue to carry out the death penalty, before detailing the murder Bucklew committed.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is important in allowing the states to proceed with the solemn duty of enforcing the death penalty enacted by their legislatures,” Paxton said. “Had the court ruled otherwise, it would have invited death row inmates to challenge each alternative execution method subsequently adopted by the state as lacking in some way, resulting in a flood of costly lawsuits and lengthy delays in executions.”

In both 2016 and 2017, Texas executed just seven people, tying for the lowest total since the state killed just three people in 1996. In 2018, however, Texas’ execution rate ticked back up, with 13 people being put to death. So far in 2019, Texas has executed two people. 
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young