JEFFERSON CITY — Attorneys for a man who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Oct. 1 pleaded their case for clemency to Gov. Mike Parson's staff on Monday in his Capitol office.
The meeting came days after the legal team submitted a 24-page petition to the governor's office asking Parson, a Republican, to commute the death sentence of Russell Bucklew, who is 51.
"We appreciated the opportunity to present to them and felt that they were paying attention and asking appropriate questions," said Laurence E. Komp, a federal public defender representing Bucklew.
Bucklew was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997 after he shot and killed a man his ex-girlfriend was staying with, kidnapped his ex-girlfriend, raped her, drove to St. Louis, and then shot at police before he was arrested.
His attorneys' pitch, contained in the clemency petition, starts by stressing Bucklew is not the same man as he was 23 years ago.
"Russell Bucklew is a man of profound Christian faith, a loyal and true friend, a caring son, and a man repentant for his crimes," his attorneys said. "Mr. Bucklew’s life the past 23 years rebuts the very basis the state invited the jury to recommend death — that he was an unrepentant sociopath that would forever pose an ongoing threat to guards and inmates."
They said moving forward with the death sentence would present "incredible risks" because of Bucklew's medical condition, cavernous hemangioma, which causes weakened and malformed blood vessels, and tumors in his nose and throat could rupture and bleed.
"Russell’s compromised medical condition make it highly likely that the state’s protocol will cause a visually gruesome execution that will traumatize corrections personnel and witnesses alike," the petition said.
His attorneys also argue that Bucklew's counsel at trial did not adequately interview his family and friends about his upbringing prior to sentencing. They argued such testimony could have swayed a jury to sentence him to life in prison rather than death.
"Russell’s childhood was anything but the idyllic picture painted by his parents
when they testified at trial," the petition said. "Russell was, and is, a product of his environment in both the positive and negative aspects."
At trial, Dr. Bruce Harry, a Columbia psychiatrist, diagnosed Bucklew with Antisocial Personality Disorder, but relied on the defense's incomplete information, the petition said.
"Relying on Dr. Harry’s testimony," the petition said, "the state hijacked the ASPD diagnosis to argue that Russell was an unrepentant 'sociopath' deserving of death."
His Kansas City-based attorneys — Cheryl A. Pilate, Jeremy S. Weis and Komp — said Bucklew also grappled with opioid addiction prior to his incarceration.
Their petition also said that prosecutors predicted he would harm other prisoners, but the petition said he has committed no serious infraction during his 22 years behind bars.
The petition includes statements attesting to his good character from nine fellow inmates, two family members and two former teachers.
This is the first execution scheduled during Parson's term as governor. As a state senator in 2016, Parson spoke against a measure that would have abolished the death penalty.
He said death penalty opponents need to remember the victims of violent crimes when they consider abolishing the death penalty.
“I think it was mainly a one-sided debate,” said Parson, a former Polk County sheriff. “There are cold-blooded killers out there.”
“When you spend a career trying to protect innocent people, the last thing you want to do is hurt an innocent person,” he said.
In signing an anti-abortion law in May, Parson declared that “all life has value and is worth protecting" — giving death-penalty opponents hope that he would spare the lives of those sitting on death row.
But, death sentence commutations in Missouri are rare.
Garry Brix, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that since 2000, Missouri governors have only commuted one death sentence.
In 2015, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards to a life sentence without parole. Edwards had been convicted in the 2000 murder-for-hire of his ex-wife.
In the months before the execution, Edwards' attorneys had cast doubt on his guilt, raising the possibility that police had coerced his confession. They claimed Edwards had a form of autism that could have made him vulnerable to aggressive interrogation techniques.