Russell Bucklew bleeds from his eyes.
Blood seeps without warning from his ears, nose and mouth as well.
Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma — meaning clusters of blood vessels in his head are weak and prone to rupturing.
The Potosi Correctional Center isn't the best place for someone with Bucklew's condition. Cold days in his cell aggravate the disease, which also impairs his speech and causes severe headaches, among other symptoms. Stress worsens the bleeding. And living on Missouri's death row comes with a very specific kind of stress. Bucklew is scheduled for execution on May 21.
He has been in custody since March 22, 1996, the day after he shot Michael Sanders in a Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, trailer home. Bucklew suspected that Sanders was having an affair with Stephanie Ray, Bucklew's girlfriend until their Valentine's Day breakup that year.
Bucklew's attorneys over the years have couched Sanders' shooting as a crime of passion, but Bucklew had threatened Sanders' life weeks before the crime. After shooting Sanders in the chest (a coroner later testified that he didn't die right away but instead bled out), Bucklew kidnapped Ray and raped her.
Like the other men Missouri has executed over the past several months, Bucklew isn't innocent. His isn't the kind of crime that generates public sympathy.
Unlike others waiting for a lethal injection from Missouri, however, Bucklew has a medical condition that calls into question whether the state can execute him without causing unconstitutional suffering.
His lawyers argue that pushing the state's usual deadly cocktail into his weak veins could cause them to collapse. In such a circumstance, the drugs may not quickly reach their targeted vital organs. Instead, the chemicals would seep into his tissue, making for a prolonged and painful execution.
"We find the situation terrifying," says Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City lawyer who represents Bucklew. "The thing that is so incredible to me is, to my knowledge, not a single thing has been done to attempt to minimize the risks to Mr. Bucklew."
The Pitch contacted the Missouri Department of Corrections' deputy attorney, Matthew Briesacher, and its director, George Lombardi, to ask if they had considered Bucklew's condition while preparing for the May 21 execution. Neither addressed the question. Silence from the Missouri Department of Corrections and other state agencies involved in capital punishment has become the norm.
Missouri law requires government agencies to fulfill open records requests as soon as possible, but the Department of Corrections has not produced lethal-injection records sought by this publication as far back as February. They block death-row inmates' access to information about how they will die. And state officials have made a concerted effort to prevent the release of any information about how it conducts executions.
Concern about Bucklew's medical condition isn't a legal Hail Mary to delay his execution.
Two physicians who have reviewed Bucklew's medical charts have questioned whether the state can bring about a rapid and painless death through lethal injection.
Bucklew's attorneys are trying to secure funding from the courts to have physicians examine their client more closely to get a better sense of the risks that a lethal injection might pose. They estimate that such an exam would cost $7,500, which is less than what the Missouri Department of Corrections has paid pharmacies to obtain execution drugs in the past.
Hemangiomas or not, the possibility that Bucklew will meet a grim end in Bonne Terre this month seems all the more likely in the wake of Oklahoma's bungled April 29 execution — one carried out on a man whose veins were healthy.
Missouri's capital-punishment method is intimately entwined with Oklahoma's. The two states have accelerated the pace of their executions at a time when other states have begun to consider abolishing the death penalty. Each state is led by a governor eager to keep the gears moving on his or her state's death machine, outrunning courts that question just how the executions are carried out.