Press Release

IACHR Concludes that the United States Violated Russell Bucklew’s Fundamental Rights, that His Execution Should Not Proceed and His Sentence Should be Commuted

March 19, 2018

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urges the United States of America to stay the execution of Russell Bucklew, which is scheduled to take place on March 20, 2018 in the state of Missouri, and to grant him effective relief. The United States is subject to the international obligations derived from the Charter of the Organization of American States and the American Declaration since it joined the OAS in 1951. Accordingly, the IACHR urges the United States, and in particular the state of Missouri, to fully respect its international human rights obligations.

The IACHR granted precautionary measures to protect the life and physical integrity of Russell Bucklew on May 20, 2014. The request for precautionary measures was filed in the context of a petition alleging the violation of rights recognized in the American Declaration. Through the precautionary measures, the Commission asked the United States to refrain from carrying out the death penalty until the IACHR had the opportunity to issue a decision on the petitioner's claims regarding the alleged violations of the American Declaration.

The IACHR decided the case was admissible on July 21, 2014. On March 18, 2018, the IACHR adopted Report No. 28/18 on the merits of the case and determined that the United States is responsible for the violation of the rights guaranteed in Articles I, XVIII, XXV and XXVI of the American Declaration, with respect to Russell Bucklew. The Inter-American Commission concluded, among other findings, that the United States did not provide him with effective access to judicial protection with regard to his right to be free from cruel and inhuman punishment and torture in the context of the application of lethal injection as the method of execution.

Russell Bucklew suffers a rare and congenital medical condition that presents a concrete risk of excessive suffering and pain during the execution. The domestic courts, while accepting the existence of a specific risk in the particular situation of Russell Bucklew, and expressly recognizing that key factual questions could not be fully resolved by means of the summary judgment that was issued, decided to proceed with the execution because his defense had failed to establish the existence of an alternative method that would reduce the suffering.

The Commission established that under its international obligations, the United States cannot impose the death penalty in a manner that would involve cruel or inhuman treatment or torture. In death penalty cases, in the event that the State becomes aware that there is a significant risk that the specific method of execution could cause a breach of its international obligations, including peremptory norms of international law, it is required to abstain from proceeding with the execution under those circumstances, regardless of whether there is an alternative method.

The Commission also concluded that the time spent by Russell Bucklew on death row, over 20 years, greatly exceeds the length of time that other international and domestic courts have characterized as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Accordingly, the Commission recommended that the United States grants Russell Bucklew effective relief. Taking into account the conclusions of the IACHR on the lack of an effective remedy to challenge the method of execution, the time Russell Bucklew has already been held on death row, his rare medical condition and the significant risk, due to that condition, that his execution would cause excessive suffering incompatible with the American Declaration, the Commission recommended that his sentence be commuted, that he be transferred out of death row, and that the State ensure that his conditions of detention are compatible with his human dignity.

The United States has 24 hours to report on the measures adopted to comply with the recommendations made by the IACHR. The Inter-American Commission urges the State to ensure full compliance with all the recommendations so as to remedy the violation of Russell Bucklew’s fundamental rights. Should the state of Missouri carry out the execution of Mr. Bucklew, it would be committing a serious and irreparable violation of the basic rights to life and not to receive cruel, infamous, or unusual punishment recognized in Articles I and XXVI of the American Declaration. The IACHR further reiterates that noncompliance with precautionary measures seriously contravenes the United States´ international legal obligations and undermines the effectiveness of the Commission's procedures.

The Inter-American Commission has dealt with the death penalty as a crucial human rights challenge for decades. While a majority of the member States of the Organization of American States has abolished capital punishment, a substantial minority retains it. In this regard, the Commission notes that the United States is currently the only country in the Western Hemisphere to carry out executions.

The Commission reiterates the recommendation made in its report “The Death Penalty in the Inter-American Human Rights System: From Restrictions to Abolition" published in 2012, that States impose a moratorium on executions as a step toward the gradual disappearance of this penalty.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 054/18