Brandon Bernard died by lethal injection last night at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., becoming the ninth person on federal death row to be killed by the U.S. government since the Trump administration resumed federal executions last year.
His death came after his defense team made one final effort to halt the execution by requesting an emergency stay of execution from the Supreme Court, reports CBS News. The defense team also added two high-profile lawyers, Harvard Law school professor Alan Dershowitz and former independent counsel Ken Starr to a case that had drawn the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Kim Kardashian. The Supreme Court denied that request.
Bernard, 40, had spent more than half his life on death row. He was one of five members of a group convicted of the 1999 murders of two youth ministers, Stacie and Todd Bagley, in Fort Hood, Texas. The gunman in the murders, Christopher Vialva, who along with Bernard stood trial, was executed in September.
Before his death, Bernard said he had been waiting for the opportunity to apologize directly to the Bagleys’ family, and to his own family, for the pain he had caused as an 18-year-old, writes CNN.
“I’m sorry...I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t,” Bernard said to the Bagleys’ family as part of his last words. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
From CBS News:
The reporter present said Bernard did not appear to be afraid or distressed in the moments leading up to his death. His eyes closed soon after the injections began, and his breathing became shallow. He did not twitch or heave, as others executed in the chamber have done, the reporter said. About 20 minutes after the first injection, white blotches appeared on his skin. He was pronounced dead seconds later at 9:27 p.m.
In written statements, the Bagley family thanked Donald Trump and the federal government for following through on the executions of Bernard and Vialva.
Todd’s mother, Georgia Bagley spoke to reporters directly after the execution. CNN reports that she became emotional when talking about the final apologies Bernard and Vialva delivered to their family.
“The apology and remorse ... helped very much heal my heart,” she said. “I can very much say: I forgive them.”
To many, Bernard and his execution are endemic of a deeply flawed justice system, and many rallied to his side in the weeks leading up to his execution.
This includes the federal prosecutor who tried Bernard, who wrote an op-ed last month in the Indianapolis Star arguing that Bernard should not be put to death.
“I read the entire trial record. I worked on that brief for months. And I just think it’s wrong to execute him,” Angela Moore, now a public defender who opposes the death penalty, said in a recent interview. “It’s just wrong. Morally, ethically and legally.”
Bernard was a getaway driver in a robbery scheme among teenage boys, ranging in age from 16 to 18, that had gone wrong. Because of his age, he was tried as an adult alongside the gunman in the murders, which his defense lawyers argue helped tilt the jury to have a harsher view of him.
During Bernard’s trial, his defense team points out, it was not shared with the jury that he occupied the “lowest rung” in the gang, which may have convinced jurors he was more of an accomplice than a murderer. Vialva was solely responsible for shooting Todd and Stacie Bagley in the head after the couple was forced into the trunk of their car (Bernard was not present during the kidnapping and robbery that happened earlier), a fact that the young men’s defense teams and prosecutors agreed on. But the jury was led to believe that Stacie Bagley may have been alive when Bernard, under instructions from others, helped douse the vehicle with gasoline and set fire to it. It was later revealed that Stacie Bagley was already medically dead by the time that happened.
Other members of the group who were similarly involved in the killings were given lesser sentences—two have since completed them.
“He is not by any measure the offender for whom the average person contemplates the death penalty,” wrote his lawyers in Bernard’s clemency petition. “Brandon Bernard is someone who should not be on Death Row, and would not be if the system had not misfired.”
Five out of nine surviving jurors who sentenced Bernard said, had they known then what they know now about the case, they wouldn’t have sentenced Bernard to death.
“While the evidence proved that Brandon Bernard is guilty beyond any doubt, it also clearly showed that Brandon Bernard was not the ringleader behind these offenses, but a follower,” wrote the juror foreperson on a website campaign to save Bernard’s life. “I am praying the President commutes Brandon Bernard’s death sentence.”
In the days before his execution date, celebrities, activists and lawmakers furiously attempted to convince Trump to commute Bernard’s death sentence.
“Despite the numerous shortcomings in Brandon’s legal representation at trial, the absence of even a single disciplinary write-up, and his decades of youth outreach work from behind the wall, Brandon is just hours away from being killed, the latest name on the list of people the Trump Administration has cruelly and unjustly scheduled for death in the waning days of this Administration,” Pressley wrote in an op-ed for The Appeal published on Thursday.
The Trump administration has rushed a number of executions this year—despite the pandemic—and still plans on executing five more people on death row before President-elect Joe Biden, who is against the death penalty, takes office next year.
According to CNN, at the time of his sentencing, Bernard was the youngest person in the United States to receive the death penalty in nearly 70 years.