CHICAGO (AP) – The Trump administration is planning an unprecedented ﬁve more federal executions before Presidentelect Joe Biden’s inauguration, starting with a Texas street-gang member set to be put to death this week for his role in the 1999 slayings of an Iowa religious couple whose bodies he burned in the trunk of their car.
Brandon 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. He would be the ninth federal inmate put to death since July, when President Donald Trump ended a 17-year hiatus in federal executions.
Bernard, now 40, received a lethal injection on Thursday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. it was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when the crime occurred.
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 during the presidency of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s.
Defense attorneys have argued in court and in a petition for clemency from Trump that Bernard was a low-ranking, subservient member of the group. They say both Bagleys were likely dead before Bernard doused their car with lighter fluid and set it on ﬁre, a claim that conflicts with government testimony at trial. Bernard, they say, has repeatedly expressed remorse.
“I can’t imagine how they feel about losing their family,” Bernard said about surviving Bagley relatives in a 2016 video statement from death row. “I wish that we could all go back and change it.” He also described taking part in youth outreach programs and embracing religion, saying, “I have tried to be a better person since that day.”
The case has prompted calls for Trump to intervene, including from a former federal prosecutor who had argued against overturning Bernard’s death sentence when he appealed after trial. She 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.
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian is among those who have asked Trump to stop the execution, saying in a series of recent tweets that Bernard’s “role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved.” The Justice Department refused to delay Thursday’s execution of Bernard, another inmate on Friday and three more in January, even after eight ofﬁcials who participated in an execution last month tested positive for the coronavirus. The eight federal executions in 2020 already is more than in the previous 56 years combined.
One of Bernard’s co-defendants, Christopher 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 teenagers, three of whom were under 18, approached the Bagleys in the afternoon on June 21, 1999, and asked them for a lift after they stopped at a convenience store – planning all along to rob the couple. After the Bagleys agreed, Vialva pulled a gun and forced them into the trunk.
The Bagleys, both of whom were in their 20s, spoke through an opening in the back seat and urged their kidnappers to accept Jesus as they drove around for hours trying to use the Bagleys’ ATM cards. After the teens pulled to the side of the road, Vialva walked to the back and shot the Bagleys in the head.
The central question in the decision to sentence Bernard to death was whether Vialva’s gunshots or the ﬁre set by Bernard killed the Bagleys.