Explained: Why the execution of death row inmate Brandon Bernard sparked controversy

By: Desk Explained | New Delhi |

Updated: December 11, 2020 7:13:20 pm





A protester holds up a sign that reads “Save Brandon Bernard” on Prairieton Road in front of the Federal Execution Chamber December 10 in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Photo: AP)

The federal government of the United States carried out the execution of the death row inmate Brandon Bernard in Indiana on Thursday, despite several high-profile activists and legal experts pleading with President Donald Trump to grant him clemency.

Bernard was the ninth federal death row sentenced to be executed since July, when the Trump administration restarted federal executions after 17-year hiatus – a decision that sparked considerable backlash in the legal community. Four more executions are scheduled to take place before the end of Trump’s presidency next month.

Why was Brandon Bernard sentenced to death?

Brandon Bernard, 40, was sentenced to death for his role in the murder of two married youth ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley, in June 1999. He was only 18 years old at the time of the incident.

Bernard and four other teens were accused of robbing the couple while on their way to the church near Killeen, Texas. They asked Todd Bagley to drive them, and when he agreed, they put the couple in the trunk of their car and took them to a nearby isolated area, according to court records.

One of the teens, a 19-year-old boy named Christopher Vialva, shot each of them in the head, before Bernard set his vehicle on fire. Vialva, who was 19 years old when he committed the crime, was executed by the federal government in September this year. The other three children involved in the incident were sentenced to prison for being under the age of 18 and therefore classified as minors.

Before his execution, Bernard’s lawyers argued that he should be sentenced to life in prison without parole, as he maintained a good record during his time in prison. She was known to participate in various outreach activities and even launched a crochet group on death row, where inmates gathered to knit sweaters, blankets and hats, AP reported.

In a clemency petition sent to President Trump, Bernard’s defense attorneys said he was simply a low-ranking subordinate member of the group that had committed the crime. Despite government records indicating otherwise, they claimed the Bagleys were likely dead even before Bernard set their car on fire.

How was its execution carried out?

Bernard was executed by lethal injection Friday at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Before dying, he apologized to the family of the couple he had murdered.

This August 2016 photo provided by the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Washington shows Brandon Bernard. Before dying, he apologized to the family of the couple he had murdered. (Photo: AP)

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the windows of the witness room. “Those are the only words I can say that fully capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.

According to the AP, Bernard showed no signs of stress, fear or apprehension and spoke clearly and naturally before his execution.

Why is its execution controversial?

Brandon Bernard’s execution has drawn the attention of anti-death penalty activists, legal experts and celebrities across the United States. He was the youngest person in the country to receive the death penalty in nearly 70 years for a crime he committed as a teenager.

Bernard’s attorney, Robert C Owen, called the execution “a blemish on America’s criminal justice system.”

Among those who urged Trump to stay the execution was reality TV star and businesswoman Kim Kardashian West. In the days leading up to his death, he shared several tweets about the case, urging his followers to support the cause and raise awareness.

Thousands of people, including Senators Richard J. Durbin and Cory Brooker, also asked the president to grant Bernard clemency, but to no avail. Just before Bernard’s execution, high-profile attorneys Kenn Starr and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who defended Trump during his impeachment in January, also joined Bernard’s case.

But the Justice Department refused to delay Bernard’s execution, as well as the other four executions scheduled to take place before President Trump formally leaves the White House and hands over the reins to President-elect Joe Biden next month.

Just an hour before Bernard was pronounced dead at the Federal Correctional Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Supreme Court had denied a request for an emergency stay for his execution. But the court’s three liberal justices, Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, said they would have granted the suspension, the Washington Post reported.

With Bernard’s death, the federal government has carried out nine executions in the last year alone, exceeding the total number of executions carried out in the previous 56 years combined. This is also the first time in more than a century that a prisoner sentenced to death has been executed during the period of the presidential transfer of power.

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One of the prosecutors in Bernard’s 2000 trial has alleged that nearly all of the white jury may have been influenced by racial bias when they decided to impose a death sentence on Bernard because he was black. Several other jurors have since said that they regret not opting for life in prison, The Guardian reported.

Who are the prisoners facing execution in the next two months?

Four more executions have been scheduled before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. If carried out, Trump will have overseen the largest number of executions by a sitting US president in more than a century.

The other executions that will take place over the next two months are: Alfred Bourgeois on December 11, Lisa Montgomery on January 12, Cory Johnson on January 14 and Dustin John Higgs on January 15.

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