The Trump administration on Thursday carried out its ninth federal execution of the year and the first during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years, putting to death a Texas street-gang member for his role in the slayings of a religious couple from Iowa more than two decades ago.
Four more federal executions, including one Friday, are planned in the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The case of Brandon Bernard, who received a lethal injection of phenobarbital inside a death chamber at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when his crime was committed.
Several high-profile figures, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, had appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison.
With witnesses looking on from behind a glass barrier, the 40-year-old Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. Eastern time.
Bernard directed his last words to the family of the couple he killed, speaking with striking calm for someone who knew he was about to die. “I’m sorry,” he said, lifting his head and looking at the witness-room windows. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
As he spoke before he died, Bernard showed no outward signs of fear, distress or apprehension, speaking lucidly and naturally as witnesses looked on behind a glass barrier. Speaking for more than three minutes, Bernard said he had been waiting for this chance to say he was sorry — not only to the victims’ family, but also for the pain he caused his own family. Earlier, he said about his role in the killing, “I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t.”
Bernard was 18 when he and four other teenagers abducted and robbed Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way from a Sunday service in Killeen, Texas. Federal executions were resumed by Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus despite coronavirus outbreak in U.S. prisons.
Todd Bagley’s mother, Georgia, spoke to reporters within 30 minutes of the execution, saying she wanted to thank Trump, Attorney General William Barr and others at the Justice Department for bringing the family some closure. She became emotional when she spoke about the apologies from Bernard before he died and from an accomplice, Christopher Vialva, who was executed in September. “The apology and remorse … helped very much heal my heart,” she said, beginning to cry and then recomposing herself. “I can very much say: I forgive them.”
Alfred Bourgeois, a 56-year-old Louisiana truck driver, is set to die Friday for killing his 2-year-old daughter by repeatedly slamming her head into a truck’s windows and dashboard. Bourgeois’ lawyers alleged he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, but several courts said evidence didn’t support that claim.
Before Bernard’s execution, Kardashian West tweeted that she’d spoken to him earlier: “Hardest call I’ve ever had. Brandon, selfless as always, was focused on his family and making sure they are ok. He told me not to cry because our fight isn’t over.”
Just before the execution was scheduled, Bernard’s lawyers filed papers with the Supreme Court seeking to halt the execution, but the high court denied the request, clearing the way for the execution to proceed.
Bernard had been crocheting in prison and even launched a death-row crocheting group in which inmates have shared patterns for making sweaters, blankets and hats, said Ashley Kincaid Eve, an anti-death penalty activist.
Read more: U.S. executes 1st federal inmate in 17 years
Federal executions during a presidential transfer of power also 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 in the 1890s.
Defence 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, had repeatedly expressed remorse.
The case 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.
The Justice Department refused to delay Thursday’s execution of Bernard, another inmate Friday and three more in January, even after eight officials who participated in an execution last month tested positive for the coronavirus. The eight federal executions in 2020 already is more than in the previous 56 years combined.
One of Bernard’s co-defendants, Vialva, was executed in September. 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 teenagers 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.
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. Defence 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. Four of the five inmates set to die before Biden’s Jan. 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.