A man serving a death sentence since 1997 took his final breath on Tuesday at the state prison in southeast Missouri’s Bonne Terre. At 6:15 p.m., 51-year-old Russell Bucklew was given a lethal dose of pentobarbital.

Convicted killer Russell Bucklew (May 2018 file photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Corrections)

A line of curtains swung open in a dark room of state witnesses. Bucklew was in a room next door positioned on a gurney with a sheet over all but his head. He did not appear to say anything as the drug began working its way through his system. A few wiggles of the toes and a couple turns of the head was it, no choking or other sounds were heard or seen.

The curtains swung shut and at 6:23 p.m., Bucklew was pronounced dead.

He was convicted of ending the life of Michael Sanders of southeast Missouri’s Cape Girardeau, who got involved with Bucklew’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Pruitt.

Bucklew shot Sanders to death in front of the victim’s 6-year-old son, three other children and Pruitt. He handcuffed Pruitt and dragged her out of the house. Bucklew, who was 27 years old at the time, took her to a remote area and raped her in the back seat of the car they were in.

Shortly after, Bucklew got into a gun fight with a state trooper and managed to survive a gun shot to the chest and one to the head. He later broke out of the Cape Girardeau County Jail to attack Pruitt’s mother, Barbara and Barbara’s fiancé. They survived getting smacked over the heads with a hammer he used on them.

Former Cape Girardeau County Prosecutor Morley Swingle witnessed Tuesday’s execution. He sat in the room with his arms crossed most of the time staring straight ahead at Bucklew.

“As I was sitting in the room and the curtain was pulled back, I realized this was the final chapter of a 23-year saga from where Russell Bucklew had violently murdered Michael Sanders and had raped and terrorized Stephanie Pruitt and her children,” says Swingle. “It really was a feeling of satisfaction that finally this journey was over and this sociopath was put to death. He fell asleep at 6:23 p.m. and the world is a better place without him.”

Last week, death penalty opponents mobilized in an unsuccessful attempt to convince Gov. Mike Parson to block Bucklew’s execution. They argued that Bucklew’s rare brain condition could lead to a brutal death.

Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel was among the group. He said Bucklew’s health warrants the man serving a life sentence or getting released from prison because Chapel said Bucklew is beyond the capacity to harm others.

Swingle calls the argument “laughable”.

“The reason we have the death penalty is to deter criminals from committing crimes like this. If you’re just going say ‘Oh, okay. You seem to be a nice guy now. Never mind that you brutally murdered another human being.’ Whoever said that has no clue about the reason that you have the death penalty,” says Swingle.

Chapel said an international human rights investigation could be on the horizon for Missouri for executing Bucklew in the condition the inmate was in.

“Well, that man (Chapel) now has egg all over his face because this was a peaceful death,” says Swingle. “Russell Bucklew fell asleep very gently – a complete contrast to the violent, brutal death he inflicted on his victim, Michael Sanders. Everybody who was making that argument was disingenuous. They were not telling the truth. Well, maybe some of them believed it but clearly those of us that were aware of the facts knew that this was unlikely to be a gruesome death. It was probably going to be exactly as it turned out – that he got a shot and fell asleep.”

Department of Corrections spokesperson Karen Pojmann says an autopsy is not planned and is not standard practice in execution cases.

A Missourinet reporter served as a state witness of the execution.

Previous stories:

Governor denies clemency for Missouri convicted killer

Death penalty opponents want governor to block Missouri inmate’s execution

Missouri prosecutor calls convicted murderer who escapes execution ‘a homicidal Energizer bunny’

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