WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday night halted the execution of a Missouri death-row inmate who said he is afflicted with a rare condition that means lethal injection would be likely to cause him an unconstitutional degree of pain and suffering.
In an unsigned opinion with no reported dissents, the justices sent the case back to lower courts for further consideration and left open whether there was a need for an evidentiary hearing. The three-sentence order gave no reason.
The action puts on hold what would have been the first execution since a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last month raised new questions about the procedure.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. late Tuesday night had temporarily stopped the execution of Russell Bucklew, 46, just before it was set to proceed. Missouri's 24-hour warrant authorizing the execution was scheduled to expire at 12:01 a.m. today.
Bucklew was sentenced to death nearly two decades ago for shooting and killing a man in 1996 before going on to abduct, beat and rape an ex-girlfriend.
The planned execution received unusual scrutiny because of what happened in Oklahoma. The lethal injection of murderer Clayton Lockett was called off after a vein collapsed, and he writhed and grimaced in pain. He died from a heart attack shortly thereafter.
Bucklew's attorneys said he suffers from untreatable vascular tumors -- "cavernous hemangioma" -- that fill his head, neck and throat. It creates a "substantial likelihood" that the injection of lethal drugs will cause hemorrhaging and suffocation, and that Bucklew could choke on his own blood. That would violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, the lawyers said.
"Lethal injection, as recent executions have demonstrated, is not a one-size-fits-all procedure," Bucklew's petition states. "What may be deemed constitutional for one prisoner may be gravely risky and in fact torturous for another."
When the Supreme Court in 2008 upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in a controlling opinion that a defendant challenging a method of execution must show "a substantial risk of serious harm" or an "objectively intolerable risk of harm." Some courts have also interpreted the court's ruling as requiring the inmate to show another method that would not carry such a risk.
Bucklew's attorneys said he had proved the risk, and an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel agreed Tuesday. It granted a 60-day stay after finding that undisputed medical evidence made clear that Bucklew would probably endure "unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions." But a few hours later, the full appeals court ruled that the execution could still proceed. The court offered little explanation in writing that "the stay of execution granted by the panel is vacated."
A short time after that, Justice Alito -- the justice designated to hear emergency pleadings from the 8th Circuit -- halted the execution again, this time writing in an order that the execution would be stayed "pending further order" from him or the full court.
Missouri calls Bucklew's objections "vague and general." According to the state's filing, "Bucklew has known about his medical condition for decades, and has known for six years that a motion to set his execution date had been sustained. He cannot now ask for a stay because testing might generate some proposal for changes in the way he is to be executed."
Bucklew attorney Cheryl Pilate said she was "extremely pleased and relieved" by the court's action.
Bucklew has said the botched Oklahoma lethal injection has him worried about what could happen if his execution goes awry.