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Alito Halts Missouri Execution; Supreme Court To Look At Case

The Supreme Court will review Missouri's plans to execute Russell Bucklew Wednesday, after Justice Samuel Alito granted a stay of Bucklew's execution late Tuesday night. The inmate has a rare medical condition that his attorneys say makes it likely that a lethal injection could go wrong.

Alito issued his order after a flurry of court actions in the hours leading up to Bucklew's execution, which had been scheduled for just after midnight. An 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel suspended his execution Tuesday, but that order was later reversed by the full court.

The decision then went to Alito, whose jurisdiction for emergency matters includes the 8th District. The Supreme Court justice did not explain the reasoning behind the stay.

As we reported last night, Bucklew's execution "would have been the first time an inmate was put to death since the botched lethal injection of Clayton D. Lockett last month in Oklahoma. That execution was stopped owing to complications and Lockett died of a heart attack about 40 minutes later."

Attorneys for Bucklew, who was sentenced to death for a 1996 murder, say he would likely suffer excruciating pain, citing a medical condition called cavernous hemangioma.

Missouri hematologist Tamara Hopkins tells KRCG TV 13 that the condition causes "dilated blood vessels all in a group. Most people are born with them, but some people acquire them over time."

Hopkins says the impact on a person receiving a lethal injection could be hard to predict.

"It depends on where they are," she says. "If they're in a vital place like the brain or spinal cord and they impinge on things because they can get very large, they can cause all sorts of problems."

Officials tell the AP that the stay from Alito could be lifted today, noting that similar postponements have come in recent cases.

The news agency reports, "two of the six inmates Missouri has executed since switching to a single-drug system in November had appeals that stretched well into the state's 24-hour execution window before the Supreme Court allowed the state to proceed. One of them was executed nearly 23 hours after he originally was scheduled to die."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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