Update: On Thursday evening, Brandon Bernard was executed by the federal government after the Supreme Court denied yet another request for delay. According to the Bureau of Prisons, all last-minute clemency bills were rejected prior to his execution. Bernard is the first to be executed in Trump's final days in office as the outgoing president plans to carry out several others.
This story was originally published on December 9, 2020.
After the Department of Justice announced plans to speedily execute five people before President Trump leaves office, advocates have created an uproar over the decision, which dangerously bucks precedent. One of the people set to be executed is Brandon Bernard, who has inspired a massive online effort to have his death sentence commuted. And time is running out — Bernard is currently scheduled to die on Thursday, December 10, despite mass protest.
In 2000, Brandon Bernard, who is now 40 years old, was sentenced to death for a crime he committed at the age of 18. As a low-ranking member of a gang, Bernard was tasked with getting rid of evidence in the murder of a pastor and his wife, Todd and Stacie Bagley. Bernard was not present for the couple’s abduction, but he was tried and convicted alongside 19-year-old Christopher Vialva, who pulled the trigger and killed the two victims. The victims were white, and both Bernard and Vialva are Black. In the trial for Bernard's life, eleven of the 12 jurors were white, and Bernard was sentenced to death.
Bernard’s execution was announced as part of the Trump administration’s ramped up efforts to push forward the federal death penalty after a 17-year pause. Vialva was executed earlier this year as part of that effort.
But in the days and weeks since the Department of Justice announced federal executions that would take place prior to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, Bernard’s legal team has gone into overdrive. They launched a full-scale campaign to advocate for his sentence to be commuted or for a stay of execution, the latter of which would allow the case to be revisited under Biden’s administration. (Biden has promised to end the federal death penalty when he takes office.) Trump, who is strongly in favor of the death penalty, has galvanized Bernard and four others' executions as perhaps one of his final acts as president.
“If it were up to him, we would return to the old days where it was eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth — or we would forget about proportionality altogether,” a former senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast in July. “He would talk about lining up drug dealers and gang members in front of a firing squad.”
It’s not just Bernard’s legal team who wants to see his execution stopped. Angela Moore, the federal prosecutor who once defended his death sentence, wrote an op-ed arguing that “executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor.” And right now, five of the nine surviving jurors in the case have said they regret sentencing him to die and have spoken out asking that his sentence be commuted.
“Brandon Bernard, during the trial, he seemed to me to be pretty broken, to be very much afraid,” juror Gary McClung told The Intercept. “I just would not want to see Mr. Bernard, who I don’t believe had any intention of killing anyone, have to die for this.”
There are celebrities and high-profile people advocating for Bernard, too. Kim Kardashian West, who has lobbied President Trump in the past to give clemency to people, has tweeted about Bernard’s case. “While Brandon did participate in this crime, his role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved, two of whom are home from prison now,” Kardashian West tweeted. “He has now been on death row for 20+ years with zero disciplinary write ups. He uses his time to reach out to at-risk youth, advising them to not stray from the Lord's path (or not follow in his teenage footsteps).”
Even Alan Dershowitz, one of the lawyers who defended Trump during his impeachment, says he has asked the White House to look into the case and overturn the scheduled execution. He told The Daily Beast that “even to those who favor the death penalty in general, this is the wrong case to apply it, because of the age of the defendant at the time of the crime, the legal questions raised by the conviction, and the likelihood that he may not be guilty of a capital crime.”
Bernard’s supporters are asking people to call the Department of Justice and ask for the sentences of other incarcerated people on death row to be commuted to life in prison. You can also join the action team at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for more information, resources, and efforts to fight back.