The Trump administration has executed Brandon Bernard, after the US supreme court denied a last-minute request to delay his killing. Bernard’s execution is one of five that the Trump administration is rushing through before Joe Biden takes office.
The execution on Thursday night was the ninth federal execution since since July, when Donald Trump ended a 17-year hiatus in federal executions, and the first during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years.
Bernard’s legal team had requested that the court grant them an additional two weeks to build up a petition to save his life, as activists and legal experts have warned that he was being wrongfully executed.
Bernard was indicted for a role in the 1999 killings of an Iowa religious couple whose bodies he burned in the trunk of their car after they were shot by an accomplice, Christopher Vialva.
He directed his last words to the family of the couple he and Vialva were convicted of killing: “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
Bernard, 40, was only 18 when the crime he had been convicted of occurred. He was killed by lethal injection, and pronounced dead at 9.27pm local time at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who defended Trump during the president’s impeachment trial in January, had joined Bernard’s legal team less than two hours before Bernard’s scheduled execution. Ken Starr, another high-profile attorney who argued that Trump should not be impeached, had also joined Bernard’s case.
The supreme court justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented in the decision not to delay Bernard’s killing.
Trump has received several petitions to spare Bernard’s life, including an appeal from the reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who has previously appealed to the president on behalf of incarcerated people.
Kardashian West tweeted on Thursday that she had spoken to Bernard 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.”
After the execution, Kardashian West said Bernard was an “amazing person” and added: “This just has to change: our system is so fucked up.”
Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty advocate, said she had spoken with Bernard the day before he died. He “told us about everything he was grateful for in his life,” she said. “He died with dignity and love, in spite of the cruel, unjust system that condemned him to die as a result of egregious prosecutorial misconduct.”
Prejean called the killing a “a stain on us all”.
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 in the 1890s.
The case has prompted calls for Trump to intervene, including from one prosecutor at Bernard’s 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.
Bernard and his co-defendant, Vialva, were convicted in 2000 for their roles in the killing of Todd and Stacie Bagley, who were youth ministers.
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 central question in the decision to sentence Bernard to death was whether Vialva’s gunshots or a fire set by Bernard killed the Bagleys.
Trial evidence showed Todd Bagley probably 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 was not proven. They have 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 20 January inauguration are black men. The fifth is a white woman who would be the first female prisoner executed by the federal government in nearly six decades.
One juror whose 2016 written statement was included in the White House petition said he still believed Bernard is responsible for “horrible decisions that had horrendous outcomes”.
“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.”