The Federal Government Executed Brandon Bernard

Brandon Bernard

Today was truly devastating. At the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, the federal government executed Brandon Bernard, making him the ninth incarcerated person executed by the feds this year since Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to resume capital punishment last July (here are my thoughts on executing people who are guilty of harm). According to the Washington Post, (I know, we don’t believe in Jeff Bezos news, but alas this is my only source for this statistic) “The Justice Department has carried out more lethal injections in the past four months than the total number the federal government executed over the previous three decades.” Bernard was only the second person executed by a lame duck administration since Grover Cleveland’s authority in 1889 (copied and pasted these stats from my post about Orlando Hall, who was the first executed person in a lame duck period). Bernard’s attorneys filed petitions for clemency from Tr*mp and argued in court that their client’s life be spared because he wasn’t directly responsible for the 1999 deaths of Todd and Stacie Bagley. This evening, Bernard’s attorneys (including late and surprising additions Allen Dershowitz and Ken Starr) sought a stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court, but the heavy conservative Court ruled 6-3 against their petition. Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, who wrote the dissenting opinion, argued they would grant the application and stay Bernard’s execution, but the remainder of the Court took the opposing position. In Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, she wrote, “That is all that is required for relief under Brady and Napue. Yet because of the Fifth Circuit’s rule, Bernard’s claim was rejected without fair consideration of its merits. Bernard should not be executed before his claims have been tested under the correct standard. Nor should others like him find themselves procedurally barred by similarly per-verse and illogical rules. For those reasons, I would grant Bernard’s petition and application for a stay.”

Brandon Bernard (watch a recent video of him here) was only 18 when he was convicted of killing the Bagleys in Texas despite not having pulled the trigger of the gun that killed the couple. He was a low ranking member of a gang when he and three of his teenage friends carjacked the white Christian Bagleys in Killeen. The boys forced the youth ministers into their car trunk where they were eventually shot in the head by 19-year-old Chris Vialva (who was executed back in September). Todd was killed instantly, but even though Bernard and the other boy who set the car on fire believed that Stacie was also dead, she lived through the gunshot and died of smoke inhalation. Since the killings occurred on military land near Fort Hood, the federal government took control over the case. Because three of the boys were underage, they were prosecuted as children, but Bernard and Vialva were sentenced as adults. According to a report from E. Tammy Kim of The New Yorker, “The presiding judge, a Reagan appointee who resigned in 2016, while under investigation for sexual misconduct, assigned Bernard a lawyer who had no previous federal death-penalty experience and failed both to call key character witnesses (including Bernard’s juvenile probation officer and a pastor) and to investigate mitigating evidence of childhood trauma; the attorney logged only a fifth of the hours usually spent to prepare for a federal death-penalty case. Meanwhile, prosecutors were allowed to call a forensic psychiatrist named Richard Coons, who billed himself as a ‘future dangerousness expert.’ (A Texas court later deemed him unreliable.) Coons testified that gang members like Vialva and Bernard were likely to join a gang inside prison and would become more violent over time; thus, they were too dangerous to sentence to life in prison. The jury condemned both young men to death.” 11 white jurors sentenced the Black men to die. However, five of the jurors, a former DA on the case, and a former warden of the Terre Haute penitentiary have come forward in defense of Bernard and requested clemency from Tr*mp because of the severe errors during trial.

Bernard was known as an ideal model inside the facility over the past 20 years. He wrote letters to at-risk youth, started a crochet club, prayed devoutly, spoke with his family (including three daughters he’s never been able to hold outside of prison), and read as much as possible. One of Bernard’s relatives shared his message, saying, “If he must pay with his life he hopes it relieves some of the Bagleys’ pain. He is at peace. He does not want the executioners to carry any guilt.” In Bernard’s attorney’s heartbreaking final statement before his execution, they wrote:

After sitting in a cage for half his life, Brandon Bernard was injected with pentobarbitol and killed at 9:27 p.m. He was someone’s son, brother, and father of three beautiful girls who loved and admired him. His daughter Taneah wrote, “My father is there for me as much as he can be from prison. I have never been able to hug my dad, but mentally and emotionally he is there for me as much as possible. It might not seem like much of a relationship, but it is the best one I have and it is important to me. I will never have a normal father-daughter relationship with my dad. He will never be able to attend my graduation or take part in my wedding, but I hope to be able to share those things with him.” Bernard’s final words before being killed were “I’m sorry,’ he said, lifting his head and looking at witness-room windows. ‘That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day. I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t.”

Every execution is barbarism and state-sanctioned murder. No one in the world, no matter what they’ve done, deserves to be executed by the government in front of an audience. Brandon was just a child when he committed his part of the harm, but he spent the majority of his life in a cage and then ultimately removed from earth for what he did. His three daughters lost their dad and his mother lost her son, just as the Bagleys lost their loved ones. Killing Brandon didn’t bring the Bagleys back, it just took away someone else. I wonder for how many more generations will Americans willfully accept state sanctioned murders and the eternal torturing and suffering of incarcerated people. Brandon should still be alive and the only way to achieve justice for all is to abolish the conditions that make society reliant on prisons and policing. We can’t have tenderness and accountability and care without the complete abolition of the prison industrial complex. Today was an incredibly painful day and I can only hope that his family and loved ones have what they need to grieve and heal.