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Explained: Why Brandon Bernard’s execution sparked controversy

Brandon Bernard was the youngest person in the country to receive the death sentence in almost 70 years for a crime he committed as a teenager.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 18, 2020 3:02:10 pm
Brandon Bernard, Brandon Bernard execution, Brandon Bernard execution controversy, Brandon Bernard execution Kim Kardashian, federal executions US, indian express, express explainedA protester holds a sign saying "Save Brandon Bernard" on Prairieton Road across from the Federal Execution Chamber, on December 10 in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Photo: AP)

The United States federal government carried out the execution of 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 inmate to be executed since July, when the Trump administration restarted federal executions after a 17-year pause — a decision that sparked considerable backlash within the legal community. Four more executions are slated to take place before the end of Trump’s presidency next month.

Why was Brandon Bernard given the death penalty?

Brandon Bernard, 40, was given the death penalty 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.

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

One of the teenagers, a 19-year-old boy named Christopher Vialva, shot each of them in their head, before Bernard set their vehicle on fire. Vialva, who was 19 when he committed the crime, was executed by the federal government in September, this year. The other three boys involved in the incident were given prison sentences as they were under 18 and thus, classed as juveniles.

Prior to his execution, Bernard’s attorneys argued that he should be given life in prison without parole as he maintained a good record throughout his time in prison. He was known to participate in several outreach activities, and even launched a death-row crocheting group, where inmates came together to knit sweaters, blankets and hats, AP reported.

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

How was his execution carried out?

Bernard was put to death by lethal injection on Friday at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Before dying, he apologised to the family of the couple he had killed.

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

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

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

Why is his 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 sentence in almost 70 years for a crime he committed as a teenager.

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

Amongst the people urging Trump to call off the execution was reality TV star and businesswoman Kim Kardashian West. In the days leading up to his death, she shared several tweets about the case, urging her followers to support the cause and raise awareness.

Thousands of people, including senators Richard J Durbin and Cory Brooker, also appealed to the President to grant Bernard clemency, but to no avail. Right before Bernard was executed, high-profile lawyers Kenn Starr and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz — who defended Trump during his impeachment trial in January — also joined Bernard’s case.

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

Merely an hour before Bernard was pronounced dead at the Federal Correctional Centre in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Supreme Court had denied a request for an emergency stay to his execution. But the court’s three liberal judges — Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — said they would have granted the stay, the Washington Post reported. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

With Bernard’s death, the federal government has carried out nine executions in the last year alone — thus, exceeding the total number of executions conducted in the previous 56 years combined. This is also the first time in over a century that a death row inmate has been executed during the ‘lame-duck’, or presidential transfer of power period.

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

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

Four more executions have been scheduled to take place before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. If these take place, Trump will have overseen the highest number of executions by a sitting US President in over a century.

The other executions that will take place over the next two month 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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