The 16th Execution of 2020
The federal government executed Brandon Bernard
on December 10, 2020, one of five death sentences the Trump Administration hopes
to carry out before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month, reported the Washington Post.
This schedule has spurred
significant pushback, with critics arguing against carrying out a wave of
executions in the narrow window before Biden, who opposes capital punishment,
takes office. Three of the executions are set for the week before Biden’s
inauguration Jan. 20.
Bernard’s case had drawn high-profile condemnation,
with Kim Kardashian West, among others, tweeting about
his case and sharing a petition calling for his death sentence to be commuted
to life in prison.
On the evening of the execution, the U.S. Supreme
Court rejected Bernard’s stay request, clearing the way for his execution to
proceed. The court’s three liberal justices — Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan
and Sonia Sotomayor — said they would have granted the stay. An hour later,
officials said Bernard’s execution had been carried out and he was pronounced
dead at 9:27 p.m. Bernard was the ninth federal death-row inmate executed this
Bernard and Christopher Vialva, his co-defendant,
were convicted of murder in 2000 for their roles in the killing of two youth
ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley, the previous year.
Some of their associates asked Todd Bagley for a
ride, and after he agreed, they put the couple into the car’s trunk and drove
them to an isolated area on the Fort Hood, Tex., military reservation,
according to court records.
Vialva shot each of them in the head, and Bernard
set the car on fire; Todd Bagley was killed by the gunshot, while Stacie Bagley
by smoke inhalation, the records show. Bernard was 18 at the time. Vialva was
19; he was executed by the federal government in September.
Bernard’s attorneys argued that his trial was flawed
and emphasized that several jurors from his case now supported him being
sentenced to life in prison rather than death. They also described Bernard as a
Robert C. Owen, an attorney for Bernard, assailed
the execution in a statement Thursday night, saying it was “a stain on
America’s criminal justice system.”
Owen said Bernard was put on death row due to
“egregious government misconduct in concealing evidence and misleading the
jury, which the courts refused to remedy.”
In a dissent Thursday night, Sotomayor wrote:
“Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of [his] claims in
court. Now he never will.”
Federal officials, in their own court filings,
defended the government’s prosecution and stressed that Bernard participated in
the crime. They also wrote that jurors still voted to give Bernard a death
sentence despite hearing testimony about his “marginally lesser role” in the
killings than Vialva.
In statements released by the Bureau of Prisons
after the execution, family and friends of the Bagleys described the killings
as a “senseless act of unnecessary evil” and thanked President Trump and
Attorney General William P. Barr. They wrote that they “have grieved for 21
years waiting for justice to finally be served.”
Bernard’s last words included an apology directed at
the victims’ family, according to the media pool report.
“I’m sorry,” he said, lifting his head to look at
the windows to witness rooms. “That’s the only words that I can say that
completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
Speaking to reporters shortly after the execution,
Todd Bagley’s mother, Georgia, became emotional about Bernard’s apology, saying
it helped heal her heart, according to the pool report. “I can very much say: I
forgive them,” she said.
The Justice Department has pushed back at criticism
of its execution schedule, saying that Barr is following the law in carrying
out death sentences, which attorneys general of both parties have sought over
Federal officials plan Friday to execute Alfred
Bourgeois, who killed his 2-year-old daughter and was convicted in 2004. His
attorneys say Bourgeois has an intellectual disability and have asked the
Supreme Court to stay the execution.
Last year, Barr announced that the Justice
Department would begin carrying out executions again using
a new lethal-injection protocol. Before that, the federal government
had not carried out any since 2003.
Lethal injection remains the primary
method of execution in the United States, though officials have
struggled to obtain the drugs involved in recent years due to opposition
from pharmaceutical firms.
Barr’s original plan to resume executions late last
year was scuttled
by court challenges to the new lethal-injection procedure, which
upheld. In July, after the Supreme Court rejected a
volley of challenges, the Justice Department carried out three
executions in four days, matching the total number it had conducted over
the previous three decades.
The legal challenges to these executions included
opposition based on the coronavirus pandemic, which has torn
through some prisons and jails. Some victims’
relatives opposed one execution, arguing they would have put their
lives at risk traveling to witness it, while spiritual
advisers in other cases made similar arguments.
One of the executions originally planned for this
month was delayed after attorneys for Lisa Montgomery, who was set to be
executed, said they
contracted the coronavirus traveling to meet with her. They asked for
a delay, and her execution has been pushed back to January.
Authorities have acknowledged that some people who
went to Terre Haute, Ind., where federal executions are carried out, tested
positive for the coronavirus after attending the most recent one.
Rick Winter, a Federal Bureau of Prisons official,
said eight members of the team involved in the
Nov. 19 execution of Orlando Hall tested positive after returning
home. In a court filing this week, Winter said six of them tested positive
within about a week of going home, and two others tested positive more than a
week after returning home.
Five of the people who tested positive planned to
travel back to Terre Haute for the executions planned this week, Winter wrote
Monday in his filing. The two people who tested positive the most recently will
not travel, he wrote, and a third person cannot go for personal reasons.
Critics, including attorneys for death row inmates,
say that setting the executions during the pandemic puts people at undue risk.
“There is no way to conduct these federal executions
right now in a way that is safe,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American
Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement. “The
federal government isn’t just willing to sacrifice the health and safety of
people incarcerated at Terre Haute — it’s sacrificing its own employees, people
who live in Vigo County, spiritual advisors, and so many others.”
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