The Trump administration is set to execute the first of five federal inmates before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, putting to death a Texas street-gang member for his role in the 1999 slayings of an Iowa religious couple whose bodies he burned in the trunk of their car.
Brandon Bernard, now 40, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Thursday at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, after eleventh-hour efforts from both his lawyers and Kim Kardashian to halt the execution failed this week.
Bernard was 18 when he and four other teenagers in the local 212 Piru Bloods gang abducted, robbed and murdered Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way from a Sunday service in Killeen, Texas, in 1999.
He was sentenced to death the following year and has been on death row for two decades.
If his execution goes ahead as planned Thursday, it will be a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when the crime occurred.
He will also be the ninth federal inmate put to death since July, when Donald Trump ended a 17-year hiatus in federal executions in the run-up to the election.
Brandon Bernard, now 40, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Thursday at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana
Kardashian explained Bernard’s case in a Twitter thread on Sunday
Kim Kardashian has pleaded with President Trump to commute 40-year-old Brandon Bernard’s death sentence and allow him to spend the rest of his life in prison instead. She is pictured above with Trump in June last year
Federal executions during a presidential transfer of power are rare, especially during a transition from a death-penalty proponent to a president-elect like Biden opposed to capital punishment.
The last time executions occurred in a lame-duck period was during the presidency of Grover Cleveland back in the 1890s.
Defense attorneys have argued in court and in a petition for clemency from Trump that Bernard was a low-ranking, subservient member of the group.
They say both Bagleys were likely dead before Bernard doused their car with lighter fluid and set it on fire, a claim that conflicts with government testimony at trial.
Bernard, they say, has repeatedly expressed remorse.
‘I can’t imagine how they feel about losing their family,’ Bernard said about the surviving Bagley relatives in a 2016 video statement from death row.
‘I wish that we could all go back and change it.’
He also described taking part in youth outreach programs and embracing religion, saying: ‘I have tried to be a better person since that day.’
The case has prompted calls for Trump to intervene, including from one prosecutor at his 2000 trial who now says racial bias may have influenced the nearly all-white jury’s imposition of a death sentence against Bernard who is black.
Several jurors have also since said publicly that they regret not opting for life in prison instead of a death sentence.
Reality star turned prison rights advocate Kim Kardashian is among those who have asked Trump to stop the execution, saying in a series of recent tweets that Bernard’s ‘role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved.’
‘Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old father is going to be executed tomorrow by our federal government,’ Kardashian tweeted ysterday.
‘Having gotten to know Brandon, I am heartbroken about this execution. I’m calling on @realDonaldTrump to grant Brandon a commutation and allow him to live out his sentence in prison.’
Alfred Bourgeois (left), who was sentenced to death in 2004 for abusing, torturing and beating to death his two-year-old daughter two years earlier, is scheduled to be executed on Friday. Lisa Montgomery, 43, (right) will become the first female federal prisoner to be executed in 70 years on January 12, after she was convicted of strangling a pregnant woman to death and cutting the unborn baby out of her womb in 2004
Cory Johnson (left) is scheduled to be put death on January 14 for the 1992 murders of seven people after he went on a killing spree of rival drug dealers among others. Dustin John Higgs (right) will then be executed just five days before Biden is sworn in on January 15 for kidnapping and murdering three women back in 1996
But, the Justice Department refused to delay Thursday’s execution of Bernard, another inmate on Friday and three more in January, even after eight officials who participated in an execution last month tested positive for the coronavirus.
Eight federal executions have already been carried out in 2020, already more than in the previous 56 years combined.
One of Bernard’s accomplices Christopher Vialva was executed in September.
Todd Bagley´s mother, Georgia, released a statement after that execution, saying: ‘I believe when someone deliberately takes the life of another, they suffer the consequences for their actions.’
Prosecutors said Vialva, the oldest of the teens at 19, was the ringleader who shot the Bagleys, as they lay in the trunk before Bernard set the car on fire.
The five teenagers, three of whom were under 18 at the time, approached the Bagleys in the afternoon on June 21 1999 and asked them for a lift after they stopped at a convenience store – planning all along to rob the couple.
After the Bagleys agreed, Vialva pulled a gun and forced them into the trunk.
The Bagleys, both of whom were in their 20s, spoke through an opening in the back seat and urged their kidnappers to accept Jesus as they drove around for hours trying to use the Bagleys’ ATM cards.
After the teens pulled to the side of the road, Vialva walked to the back and shot the Bagleys in the head.
The central question in the decision to sentence Bernard to death was whether Vialva’s gunshots or the fire set by Bernard killed the Bagleys.
Bernard and accomplice Christopher Vialva were sentenced to death in 2000 after a jury found them guilty of carjacking and murdering Todd and Stacie Bagley (above), married Christian youth ministers from Iowa
Trial evidence showed Todd Bagley likely died instantly. But a government expert said Stacie Bagley had soot in her airway, indicating smoke inhalation and not the gunshot killed her.
Defense attorneys have said that assertion wasn’t proven.
They’ve also said Bernard believed both Bagleys were dead and that he feared the consequences of refusing the order of the higher ranking Vialva to burn the car to destroy evidence.
The first series of federal executions over the summer were of white men, which critics said seemed calculated to make them less controversial amid summer protests over racial discrimination.
But now four of the five inmates set to die before Biden’s January 20 inauguration are black men.
The fifth is a white woman who would be the first female inmate executed by the federal government in nearly six decades.
Alfred Bourgeois, who was sentenced to death in 2004 for abusing, torturing and beating to death his two-year-old daughter two years earlier, is scheduled to be executed on Friday.
The other three executions are planned just days before the inauguration.
Lisa Montgomery, 43, will become the first female federal prisoner to be executed in 70 years on January 12, after she was convicted of strangling a pregnant woman to death and cutting the unborn baby out of her womb in 2004.
Cory Johnson is scheduled to be put death on January 14 for the 1992 murders of seven people after he went on a killing spree of rival drug dealers among others.
Dustin John Higgs will then be executed just five days before Biden is sworn in on January 15 for kidnapping and murdering three women back in 1996.
The federal prosecutor who now wants a life term for Bernard, Angel Moore, says recent research shows people tend to view black people as more to blame than their white counterparts when the facts surrounding a crime are the same, and that young black men are less likely to be given benefits of the doubt by jurors because of their immaturity.
‘I always took pride in representing the United States as a federal prosecutor, and I think executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor,’ Moore, who is now in private practice in San Antonio, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Indianapolis Star.
One juror whose 2016 written statement was included in the White House petition said he still believes Bernard is responsible for ‘horrible decisions that had horrendous outcomes.’
The Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana where Brandon will be put to death. Biden has vowed to end federal executions when he takes office and said he will incentivize states to stop state executions as well
‘However, his young age at the time does weigh on me,’ he wrote. ‘I do not believe that Brandon should be executed for bad choices he made when he was 18.’
A statement from Bernard’s 16-year-old daughter is also included in which she describes her father as constantly warning her to stay away from the wrong crowds and how a single bad decision can ruin your life.
She added: ‘I am hoping and asking the President to spare my dad’s life.’
Daniel Lewis Lee was the first to be put to death by the federal government in almost two decades back in July.
Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, was executed Tuesday morning at the same Indiana facility, when he died by lethal injection after the Supreme Court cleared the way overnight with a 5-4 vote.
The self-confessed white supremacist was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
The decision to move forward with federal executions has drawn scrutiny from civil rights groups.
Critics argued that the Trump administration, which has been pushing for the executions, was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain ahead of the 2020 election.
Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.
Biden has vowed to end federal executions when he takes office and said he will incentivize states to stop state executions as well.