For the ninth time this year, the Trump administration executed a death row inmate, killing Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday night after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution amid a nationwide outcry over the use of the death penalty.
The Justice Department's killing of Bernard marked the first federal execution carried out during a lame-duck period in 130 years and is one of five that President Donald Trump is pushing through before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of capital punishment, takes office on January 20, 2021.
"I'm sorry. That's the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day." Those were the last words of Bernard, 40, which he directed toward the family of a white couple that he and Christopher Vialva were convicted of killing in Texas in 1999, when the pair of Black men were in their teens.
Bernard was one of five friends between the ages of 15 and 19 who planned a robbery, which turned violent. Defense attorneys argued that after Vialva shot the couple, Bernard "feared the consequences of refusing the order of the higher-ranking Vialva to burn the car to destroy evidence," The Guardian reported Thursday, though NBC News pointed out that "the other members of the group testified they hadn't seen him do it."
Bernard—who was found guilty by a jury of 11 white people and one Black person and sentenced to death as an accomplice in the double murder, despite his lawyers' argument that he was a follower who was unaware that the victims would be murdered—"was the youngest person, based on his age when the offense occurred, in nearly seven decades to be put to death by the federal government," NBC News reported Thursday.
"Brandon made one terrible mistake at age 18," said Bernard's attorney, Robert C. Owen. "But he did not kill anyone, and he never stopped feeling shame and profound remorse for his actions in the crime that took the lives of Todd and Stacie Bagley. And he spent the rest of his life sincerely trying to show, as he put it, that he 'was not that person.'"
"This is wrong. The death penalty is wrong," Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted minutes before Bernard was killed by lethal injection. He was pronounced dead at 9:27 pm at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
This is wrong. The death penalty is wrong. https://t.co/KzKFLZwB3c— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) December 11, 2020
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted on Friday morning that "Brandon Bernard should be alive today." Sanders called for ending all federal executions and abolishing the death penalty. "In a world of incredible violence," he added, "the state should not be involved in premeditated murder."
Brandon Bernard should be alive today. We must end all federal executions and abolish the death penalty. In a world of incredible violence, the state should not be involved in premeditated murder. https://t.co/TeppKF667T— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 11, 2020
According to NBC News:
Bernard's attorneys asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to temporarily halt his execution while they pursued claims that the prosecution at his trial unconstitutionally withheld evidence that would have led jurors to give him a life sentence. Five jurors have since come forward to attest that they no longer support the death penalty in the case, while a former prosecutor who challenged Bernard's appeal of his death verdict said she did not believe he should be put to death, in part, because he was a teenage offender and had become a model prisoner.
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In the Supreme Court's decision to decline a stay Thursday, Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor would have granted the request.
In addition to Bernard's case, the Trump administration has scheduled four more executions to take place during the president's remaining weeks in office, including one on Friday. Three of the cases involve Black men. The exception is Lisa Montgomery, who is set to be killed in January and would be the first woman in almost 70 years to be executed by the federal government.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) highlighted how "this administration has put the death penalty in high gear," which she called "disturbing and sickening," before adding to a growing chorus calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
This administration has put the death penalty in high gear, and it’s disturbing and sickening. We must abolish the death penalty.— Deb Haaland (@Deb4CongressNM) December 11, 2020
Abolish the death penalty.— Amnesty International USA (@amnestyusa) December 11, 2020
Abolish the death penalty.
Abolish the death penalty.
Abolish the death penalty.
As NBC News reported, "Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey, members of the Judiciary Committee, had also urged Trump to grant clemency" to Bernard ahead of what was the first in an unprecedented series of lame-duck executions.
The pair argued that "the death penalty in the United States is fatally flawed in its imposition and is disproportionately imposed based on race," an assertion corroborated by a report (pdf) on racial discrimination and the death penalty released in September by the Death Penalty Information Center, which noted that "the race of the victim is likely to affect whether defendants are charged with a capital crime or are ultimately sentenced to death, especially when the defendant is African American and the victim is white."
Anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean also pointed out that "everybody on death row is poor. Not a single person sentenced to death in this country of the 1,500 plus people who have been gassed, shot, electrocuted, and lethally injected ever had money."
Sister @helenprejean: “Brandon (Bernard) and everybody on death row is poor. Not a single person sentenced to death in this country or the 1,500 plus people who have been gassed, shot, electrocuted, and lethally injected ever had money.”— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) December 11, 2020
Prejean, who spoke with Bernard before his death, said that "Brandon told us about everything he was grateful for in his life."
"He died with dignity and love," she added, "in spite of the cruel, unjust system that condemned him to die as a result of egregious prosecutorial misconduct."