Criminal justice lawmakers, celebrities and jurors involved in the 1999 murder case are urging the Trump administration to halt the ninth federal execution this year. Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old inmate, is due to die Thursday in a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, as the Trump administration progresses with even more executions ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Bernard was sentenced to death in 2000 after a jury found him guilty of two counts of murder, but developments in his case raised questions about the verdict. Bernard was 18 when, along with accomplices, he robbed and abducted two youth ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley, on a military reserve in Texas in 1999.
After locking the couple in the trunk of the car, accomplice Christopher Vialva shot both victims in the head, killing Todd instantly. Bernard then set fire to the trunk.
Prosecutors told the jury that Stacie had died from the fire started by Bernard, and for that reason they asked the jurors to give the death penalty. But after the trial, an independent doctor hired by the defense determined that Stacie was “medically dead” before the fire.
Vialva was executed for his role in the September killings.
According to a November request for a stay of execution, the government withheld evidence that could have led to a jury change when sentencing. “Expert evidence that Bernard occupied the lowest rung of the gang would almost certainly convince at least one juror to vote for life,” the court claims.
With this new information, five of the nine surviving jurors said they would change the sentence to life imprisonment rather than death. Former jury forensic scientist Calvin Kruger said he now supports a life sentence because Bernard “was not the ringleader behind these crimes, but a follower.”
Angela Moore, a prosecutor who fought the appeal for the abolition of the sentence, is now opposing his execution. Moore told CBS News changed her mind for “legal reasons, apart from my own beliefs, this is evidence and what we have learned since then. Mr. Bernard in this case did not shoot and kill the victims.”
Mark Bezy, a former warden of Terre Haute, said he supports a lenient sentence based on Bernard’s “extraordinary” prison record. “It would work extremely well in a less restrictive environment without presenting any risk to institutional security and good order or presenting any risk to the safety and security of staff, prisoners or others.”
Celebrities also called on the Trump administration to stop the execution. Kim Kardashian West, who has he swayed Mr Trump, on past cases, called on the president to commute Bernard’s sentence on Wednesday.
“Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old father, will be executed by our federal government tomorrow. Meeting Brandon broke my heart because of this execution,” West tweeted. “I call on @realDonaldTrump to grant Brandon a commutation and allow him to serve his prison sentence.”
Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old father, will be executed by our federal government tomorrow. When I met Brandon, my heart was broken because of this execution. I’m calling @realDonaldTrump grant Brandon commutation and allow him to serve his prison sentence. https://t.co/soccUQFmac
– Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) December 9, 2020
As Bernard’s execution moves forward under Attorney William Barr, President Trump could stop or continue the execution of Bernard and other prisoners on death row. “There is always room for mercy and for the president to change his mind,” said Abraham Bonowitz, director of the nonprofit death penalty action.
Meanwhile, Bernard’s lawyers on Wednesday made a final appeal to the Seventh Round to prevent his execution.
This summer, Barr returned the death penalty to the federal level after nearly two decades. If all the executions go according to plan, the Trump administration will have them executed According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 13 of the 54 inmates are in the federal death penalty.
Critics condemned the president’s continued use of executions, given the incoming administration’s strong opposition to the death penalty.
“It’s a power game, they do it because they can,” Bonowitz said. “You would expect that once he is not re-elected, he would do what everyone would normally expect in transition and postpone to a successor.”
Barr recently defended the extension of the execution into the lame duck period. “I think the way to stop the death penalty is to abolish the death penalty. But if you want the jury to say it, and the jury to say it, then it should be done,” he said. .
The statement comes in direct opposition to the incoming administration. A spokesman for Biden’s transition said the incoming president “opposes the death penalty, now and in the future, and as president will work to end its use”.
Gallup poll conducted in June, he found that a majority of American adults, 54%, believe the death penalty is morally acceptable. That’s a drop of six percentage points from the year before, showing a record low percentage of Americans supporting the death penalty in the poll’s 20-year history.
Clare Hymes contributed to the reporting.