Calls to end death penalty grow after Brandon Bernard execution

Cyril Josh Barker | 12/17/2020, midnight
Public outcry from big names, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to spare the life of Brandon Bernard fell on deaf ...
Brandon Bernard Photo courtesy of Help Save Brandon

Public outcry from big names, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to spare the life of Brandon Bernard fell on deaf ears as he was executed on Dec. 10.

Bernard’s case goes back to 1999 in Texas when he was just 18. He and four friends approached youth pastors Todd and Stacie Bagley to give them a ride to a gas station with intentions to rob them. The couple was forced into the trunk of the vehicle and the group stole their ATM card, money and jewelry.

The group drove the car to the side of the road near Belton Lake at Fort Hood. Bernard allegedly set the vehicle on fire while another accomplice shot Todd in the head. Stacie died from smoke inhalation.

A 2000 trial was held in federal court where Bernard was found guilty of both murders and sentenced to death. One of the accomplices, Christopher Vialva, was executed for his role in the Bagleys’ murder on Sept. 22.

Bernard’s execution is one of five executions of Black men that President Donald Trump has lined up during his final weeks in office. Supporters of Bernard say that during the last 20 years he’s been in prison, he’s mentored at-risk youth. They also said his life should have been spared due to his age at the time of crime.

Angela Moore, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas at the time, wrote in an op-ed last month that Bernard should not be executed.

“My experience with teenagers who have committed violent crimes, especially boys of color, has taught me much about the recklessness and fragility of adolescents, as well as their ability to mature and change,” Moore wrote.

Several of the jurors in the case advocated for a commute of Bernard’s sentence with five out of the nine living jurors who voted to convict Bernard saying that he should not be executed. Bernard’s attorneys, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, requested a two-week delay of Bernard’s execution.

“Brandon’s execution is a stain on America’s criminal justice system,” Bernard’s legal team said in a statement. “But I pray that even in his death, Brandon will advance his commitment to helping others by moving us closer to a time when this country does not pointlessly and maliciously kill young Black men who pose no threat to anyone.”

In the wake of Bernard’s execution, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, along with 41 of her House colleagues, sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris calling on them to end the death penalty.

“Your historic election with record turnout represents a national mandate to make meaningful progress in reforming our unjust and inhumane criminal legal system,” wrote the lawmakers.

“Ending the barbaric practice of government-sanctioned murder is a commonsense step that you can and must take to save lives.”

Locally, Manhattan District Attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi said Bernard was “murdered by the state.”

“The actions of prosecutors have permanent and damaging impacts on families,” she said. “The systemic racism coupled with a culture of prosecuting at all costs destabilizes families and no apology or change of heart can fix that.”