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Death row inmate Russell Bucklew is shown in this Missouri Department of Corrections photo taken on Feb. 9, 2014. Missouri is set on early May 21, 2014 to execute Bucklew, a convicted killer whose lawyers have said has a rare health condition that could lead to extreme pain and suffocation during a lethal injection.
Missouri Department of Corrections/Reuters

Updated May 21, 7:16am ET

A Supreme Court Justice stepped in to halt the execution of a death row inmate in Missouri with an hour to go before this scheduled lethal injection Tuesday night, after an 11th hour legal back-and-forth over his fate.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ordered the suspension of Russell Bucklew’s execution late Tuesday, shortly after a full federal appeals court lifted a stay on his lethal injection imposed earlier by a three-person panel of that same court.

Russell Bucklew, who murdered a man in front of his children, shot a cop and raped and kidnapped his ex-girlfriend, has said a birth defect could cause him tremendous pain during an execution, that would violate the Eighth Amendment‘s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. But Justice Alito, who handles emergency matters for Missouri and other states covered by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, did not give a reason for his stay. The full Supreme Court will examine Bucklew’s case on Wednesday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had earlier struck down a 2-1 ruling to stay Bucklew’s execution as the state had not proven that the condemned man’s claim was incorrect. Bucklew had argued that his cavernous hemangioma — which causes masses of blood vessels to grow in his skull — might keep the injection drug from properly circulating.

“Bucklew’s unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions,” the court wrote.

“We also conclude that the irreparable harm to Bucklew is great in comparison to the harm to the state from staying the execution.”

On Monday, a lower court denied Bucklew’s request to stay the execution, which would have been the first since a botched lethal injection in late April led Oklahoma to halt its executions. The incident also prompted President Obama to call for a Department of Justice inquiry.

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