Federal inmate Brandon Bernard was executed at 9:27 p.m. on Thursday, despite a last-ditch effort by advocates, celebrities, the prosecutor who jailed him, and at least one Trumpworld luminary to convince the president to spare his life.
Bernard spoke his last words to the family of his victims, according to the Associated Press: “I’m sorry. That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
The execution of the 40-year-old by lethal injection at a federal facility in Indiana was the ninth federal execution under President Donald Trump’s watch. But it was notable, in part, because of how it pitted him against a cadre of allies he had nurtured during his time in office.
Attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr—both veterans of Trump’s legal defense during the impeachment trial this year—had joined Bernard’s legal team in the last few days, petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. Kim Kardashian, the famed socialite entrepreneur who had worked with Trump on clemency issues before, was one of the most outspoken advocates arguing for a reprieve. The court denied a stay of execution hours before Bernard was put to death.
“Tonight, we who love Brandon Bernard—and we are many—are full of righteous anger and deep sadness at the actions of the federal government in taking his life. Brandon’s life mattered,” Bernard’s attorney Robert Owens said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
#BrandonBernard should not be executed:
1. He was 18 at the time.
2. He was not the shooter.
3. The prosecutor and 5 of the jurors now support clemency.
4. He’s spent decades in prison w/out a write up, helping at risk youth.
5. There’s bipartisan support for his commutation. pic.twitter.com/18GugdtuOs
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) December 10, 2020
That Trump wasn’t persuaded by those pleas not only showed the limitations of those prior relationships but also the firmness of the president’s determination to execute a number of federal inmates before his term ends in January.
This past summer, the Supreme Court allowed the Justice Department to restart federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. In subsequent months, Attorney General William Barr and the DOJ press office publicized Bernard’s impending execution, describing the “especially heinous” crime and the inmate’s involvement in “brutally murder[ing] two youth ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley, on a military reservation in 1999.”
Bernard, who was 18 at the time, and four teenage friends kidnapped the Bagleys with the intent to rob them—but one of the teens, Christopher Vialva, shot them in the head instead. Bernard then lit the couple’s car on fire with them in the trunk. A medical examiner testified that Stacie Bagley was still alive after she was shot but died from smoke inhalation, a finding that Bernard’s allies dispute. (Vialva was put to death earlier this year.)
“Brandon made one terrible mistake at age 18,” Owens said. “He spent the rest of his life trying to show, as he put it, that he ‘was not that person.’”
As Bernard’s execution date neared, his allies ramped up a public and behind-the-scenes campaign to appeal to Trump, as well as to the White House counsel’s office and other top officials, to intervene. While it was unclear for a while if Trump was even aware of the case, by the day of the scheduled execution, knowledgeable sources said he’d become familiar with the Bernard situation with multiple conversations on the details of the case and the murders.
Within just hours of the planned execution, multiple individuals in and out of the broader Trump orbit who were sympathetic to Bernard told The Daily Beast that it appeared the president had arrived at his final decision, and that it would not be to their liking.
In the end, Trump found the push for clemency unpersuasive. According to two people with knowledge of the situation, Trump seemed particularly horrified by descriptions of the robbery and brutal killings of the two youth ministers, and that by that point, there was “no changing his mind,” one of the people said.
As the execution was underway, President Trump was tweeting about “the Fake News Media, the FBI and the DOJ,” and the Biden family and falsely claiming that he won the 2020 election that he clearly lost.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
The president’s decision to dismiss calls for clemency fits into a broader worldview he holds about the moral merits of capital punishment. Several criminal-justice reform advocates have described the push to conduct federal executions before President-elect Joe Biden’s promise to halt them as Barr and Trump’s final “killing spree.”
His appetite for it is more profound, it appears, than his desire to earn plaudits of some key figures in and around his orbit.
Among the senior staff in the West Wing who’ve been aware of the case and of advocates’ entreaties in recent days is the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, though it’s unclear the extent to which she discussed it with the president, if at all, the sources said.
Bernard’s allies, among them Kardashian, argued that the prisoner was a reformed man, with an unblemished 20-year record in prison, who had tried to counsel young and troubled people not to go down the same path he did as a teenager.
“The tragedy is that they are executing a very different man than the young man who committed these crimes 22 years ago,” Dershowitz said in a brief interview on Thursday afternoon.
Five of nine surviving jurors from Bernard’s trial came forward to say that they did’t think the punishment fit the crime. And Angela Moore, a former federal prosecutor who defended Bernard’s death sentence on appeal, wrote an op-ed last month titled, “I helped put Brandon Bernard on federal death row. I now think he should live.” Advocates and Bernard’s legal team said prosecutors withheld evidence of his low rank in the local gang involved in slayings, likely proving he had to follow orders to burn the car—evidence that could have spared him a death sentence.
His family had also pleaded for clemency, stating that a life sentence would be better than death.
“I have never been able to hug my dad, but mentally and emotionally he is there for me as much as possible,” Taneah Scott, his daughter, said in a statement. “It might not seem like much of a relationship, but it is the best one I have and it is important to me.”
U.S. District Court Judge James Sweeney rejected a request to halt the execution, ruling that evidence presented to jurors suggesting there was no gang hierarchy wasn’t compelling enough to challenge the jurors’ conviction.
“Rather than taking into consideration hierarchy in general, the sentence reflects the actual conduct in this case,” Sweeney wrote.
Following Vialva’s execution in September, Todd Bagley’s mother, Georgia, released a statement which read, “I believe when someone deliberately takes the life of another, they suffer the consequences for their actions.”
Just before the execution on Thursday night, Moore, the former prosecutor, told The Daily Beast: “I want to say that the system has failed Brandon. I failed. The rule of law and the judiciary has failed. Our government is committing legal murder in retribution of murder.”