By Sarah N. Lynch
Bernard’s death marked the ninth execution since Attorney General William Barr resumed the use of the federal death penalty earlier this year following a 17-year hiatus.
Bernard was convicted in 2000 along with an accomplice, Christopher Vialva, of carjacking and murdering Todd and Stacie Bagley, married Christian youth ministers from Iowa, on the Fort Hood army base in Texas.
At the time of the crime, Bernard was 18 years old. Vialva kidnapped and shot the couple at close range as they lay inside the trunk of the car. Afterwards, Bernard set the car on fire.
The Justice Department executed Vialva on Sept. 24.
“I’m sorry,” a media witness quoted Bernard as saying, shortly before the execution. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
Five jurors from the trial of the two men had backed Bernard’s clemency petition, saying his lawyers did a poor job defending him at trial. Though they still agree that both Bernard and Vialva were guilty, they said Bernard did not seem to have intended to kill the Bagleys.
Attorneys for Bernard say that through their own investigation, they discovered prosecutors withheld crucial information that could have proven Bernard was a low-level member of a youth gang, making him less of a threat in the future to re-offend.
His fight for clemency garnered the attention of celebrity Kim Kardashian, who on Twitter pleaded for the government to show mercy.
“Brandon made one terrible mistake at age 18. But he did not kill anyone, and he never stopped feeling shame and profound remorse for his actions,” his attorney Robert Owen said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting to at least temporarily halt all federal executions due to pandemic concerns.
Their effort comes after the spiritual adviser to former inmate Orlando Hall contracted COVID-19 after he traveled to the federal death chamber at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana for Hall’s November execution.
Since then, the Justice Department has revealed in court filings that at least eight, or 20%, of the Bureau of Prison staff who participated in Hall’s execution, have since tested positive for COVID-19.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday evening denied a stay of execution for Bernard, with its three liberal justices dissenting.
“Today, the court allows the federal government to execute Brandon Bernard, despite Bernard’s troubling allegations that the government secured his death sentence by withholding exculpatory evidence and knowingly eliciting false testimony against him,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent.
“Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court. Now he never will.”
Several more inmates are set to be executed before Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, including Alfred Bourgeois, who is scheduled to be executed on Friday for torturing and killing his young daughter, according to a Justice Department summary of the case. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Bill Berkrot, Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast)