11, December 2020
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 despite calls for clemency and Covid-19 outbreaks behind bars.
Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old African-American inmate, was put to death at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for his role in a 1999 double murder in Texas committed when he was 18 years old.
Four more federal executions, including one Friday, are planned in the weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration in January.
More than 500,000 people had signed petitions urging President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison, citing his age at the time of the crime and his good behaviour as an inmate.
With witnesses looking on from behind a glass barrier separating them from a pale-green death chamber, the 40-year-old Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27pm ET.
He directed his last words to the family of the couple he played a role in killing, speaking with striking calm for someone who knew he was about to die.
“I’m sorry,” he said, lifting his head and looking at 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, he showed no outward signs of fear or distress, speaking lucidly and naturally. He spoke for more than three minutes, saying 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.
Referring to his part in the killing, he said: “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, during which Bernard doused their car with lighter fluid and set it on fire with their bodies in the back trunk.
Federal executions were resumed by Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus despite Covid-19 outbreaks in US 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.
“Without this process,” she said, reading from a statement, “my family would not have the closure needed to move on in life.” She called the killings a “senseless act of unnecessary evil.”
But she stopped reading from the prepared text and became emotional when she spoke about the apologies from Bernard before he died Friday and from an accomplice, Christopher Vialva, the ringleader of the group who shot the Bagleys in the head before the car was burned. He 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.”
Final moments of a death by lethal injection
Earlier inside the death chamber, Bernard lay on a cross-shaped gurney with IV lines running into both arms. He looked back when a US marshal picked up a phone and asked if there were any reasons not to proceed. Bernard reacted calmly as the marshall put down the phone and said the execution could proceed.
Bernard didn’t exhibit the laboured breathing and constant twitching of others executed previously had. A minute after the lethal injection, his eyes slowly closed and he barely moved again.
About 20 minutes later, faint white blotches appeared on his skin and someone entered from a chamber door, listened to his heart, felt for a pulse, then walked out. Seconds later, an official said Bernard was dead.
Alfred Bourgeois, a 56-year-old Louisiana truck driver, is set to die Friday for killing his 2-year-old daughter. His lawyers alleged he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, but several courts said evidence didn’t support that claim.
‘Hardest call I’ve ever had,’ says Kim Kardashian West
Several high-profile figures, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, had appealed to Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison.
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.
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 in the 1890s. during the presidency of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)