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A look at Missouri’s death penalty laws, history


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After more than two decades of appeals, Russell Bucklew, a man convicted of first-degree murder in 1997, is scheduled to be executed later Tuesday. 

The Missouri Supreme Court set Bucklew’s execution for October 1 earlier this year. Bucklew will be the 89th person to be put to death in Missouri since the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of capital punishment in 1976 — and the first under Gov. Mike Parson

After his girlfriend left him in 1996, Bucklew reportedly stalked, kidnapped, beat, and raped her. During the abduction, Bucklew fatally shot her new boyfriend and opened fire at his 6-year-old son, missing him. 

Bucklew, now 51, had appealed just how he would be sentenced to death. He said because of a rare medical condition, a lethal injection could cause a tumor in his throat to burst, thus causing extreme pain. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed his argument in a 5-4 ruling in April. 

His attorneys met with the Governor’s Office last week to plead his case for clemency. They have warned his medical condition will cause him to suffer an “excruciatingly painful death.” Carrying out the execution would “traumatize corrections personnel and witnesses alike,” his lawyers have said.

Parson has denied the clemency request, The Missouri Times confirmed Tuesday morning.

Missouri’s capital punishment law

Missouri allows the death penalty — by lethal injection or gas — which is overseen by the Department of Corrections. The death penalty can be imposed on invidiuals who are at least 18 years old and found to have deliberately committed first-degree murder, a class A felony. 

The law instructs jurors to consider certain evidence, including the perpetrator’s past record, when considering the death penalty. 

Individuals who are found to have a mental disease or inability to “understand the nature and purpose of the punishment about to be imposed upon him or matters in extenuation, arguments for clemency or reasons why the sentence should not be carried out,” should not be executed, according to state law

Death sentence history in the state

As of today, there are 23 capital punishment offenders in Missouri as of Wednesday, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman. All are men. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty did not violate the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments, Missouri has executed 88 people. But since capital punishment was first issued in the state (in 1810), Missouri has put to death hundreds of people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). 

In fact, the state executed 285 people from 1810 until 1965, according to the DPIC. Until 1936, when the state began to use lethal gas, Missouri hanged those who were sentenced to death. Lethal injections began to be used in 1987. 

Only one woman has been executed in Missouri history: Bonnie Heady. Along with her boyfriend, Heady was convicted of kidnapping and killing a young boy in 1953. The pair was executed together in December of that same year.

Legislative reforms 

A few bills modifying Missouri’s death penalty guidelines were brought up during the 2019 session — but none made it very far: 

  • SB 288 from Republican Sen. Paul Wieland would remove the option of the death penalty if all jurors could not unanimously agree to such a punishment. It did not make it past a Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. 
  • SB 462 from Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat, would eliminate the option of the death penalty for convicted felons who are found to have been suffering from a serious mental illness at the time the crime was committed. The option for life in prison without parole would still be available, but the bill also did not make it out of the Senate’s judiciary committee. 
  • HB 630 would require the state to perform executions in a way that would allow for inmates to donate his or her organs if so desired. The bill, from Republican Rep. Jim Neely, was referred to the House Corrections and Public Institutions Committee where it stalled. 
  • HB 811, from Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan, had similar language to that of Wieland’s bill. It passed out of the House Rules – Administrative Oversight Committee but didn’t go further.