Justice Department Executes Man for Murder Committed When He Was 18

By Hailey Fuchs

Despite a high-profile clemency campaign by allies of President Trump, the administration executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection for his role in the 1999 crime.

Brandon Bernard, the ninth man executed by the federal government since July, spent more than half his life on death row. He was convicted for his role in the murders of two youth ministers in 1999, when he was 18.
Brandon Bernard, the ninth man executed by the federal government since July, spent more than half his life on death row. He was convicted for his role in the murders of two youth ministers in 1999, when he was 18.Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Despite a high-profile clemency campaign, the Justice Department executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery when he was 18.

Mr. Bernard, the ninth man executed by the federal government since July, spent more than half his life on death row. Though several of his accomplices in the plot who were younger than 18 were sentenced to time in prison, Mr. Bernard, a legal adult at the time of the crime, was eligible for the federal death penalty.

In his final days, supporters of Mr. Bernard, now 40, pleaded with President Trump to grant him clemency. Because he was a teenager at the time of the murders, his case revived questions about imposing the death penalty on young inmates convicted of violent crimes.

Mr. Bernard was the second federal inmate to be executed since Election Day and one of six scheduled for execution by the Trump administration during the lame-duck period before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office next month. In a break with Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden has said he will work to end the federal death penalty.

Among his final words, Mr. Bernard apologized to the family of the couple he had killed and for the pain he caused his own family, according to a report from a journalist in attendance. For his role in their deaths, he said, “I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the witness room windows. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”

Mr. Bernard did not appear outwardly afraid or distressed as he spoke. A minute after the lethal injection began, his eyes slowly closed, and his breaths became increasingly shallow, the report noted.

He was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., the Bureau of Prisons said.

The mother of one of the victims, Georgia A. Bagley, in a statement with family and friends, thanked Mr. Trump and the Justice Department. She called the crime “a senseless act of unnecessary evil.”

“It has been very difficult to wait 21 years for the sentence that was imposed by the judge and jury on those who cruelly participated in the destruction of our children, to be finally completed,” Ms. Bagley said in the statement.

After the execution, Ms. Bagley told reporters that she forgave Mr. Bernard and his accomplice, Christopher Vialva, who was executed in September, saying the apology “helped very much heal my heart.”

Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, who served as members of Mr. Trump’s defense team during his impeachment trial, formally joined Mr. Bernard’s defense team on Thursday and asked the Supreme Court to delay his execution.

In an interview, Mr. Dershowitz said he spoke with the White House about Mr. Bernard’s case. Ultimately, the president declined to act.

The Supreme Court also denied Mr. Bernard’s application for a stay on Thursday, with the three more liberal justices indicating that they would have granted the stay.

Supporters had sent hundreds of thousands of letters to Mr. Trump to call for Mr. Bernard’s clemency, his defense team said Thursday afternoon. Kim Kardashian West, who has successfully lobbied Mr. Trump for clemency in another case, publicly called on the president to spare Mr. Bernard’s life.

Mr. Bernard was convicted and executed for his role in the killings of Todd and Stacie Bagley, two youth ministers visiting Texas from Iowa. Mr. Bagley agreed to give a ride to the young men who approached him, according to testimony in the case. Three men got in the car, but after one of the three gave Mr. Bagley directions, they pulled two guns on the Bagleys, robbed them and forced them into the trunk. At this point, Mr. Bernard had separated from the group.

The purported ringleader of the crime, Mr. Vialva, then 19, insisted that the young men needed to kill the Bagleys. After Mr. Bernard and another accomplice bought lighter fluid, four of the young men, driving in two cars, took the victims to a remote spot on the Fort Hood military reservation.

Mr. Bernard and Terry Brown, then 17, poured lighter fluid on the car’s interior, and Mr. Vialva shot the victims with Mr. Bernard’s gun, killing Mr. Bagley and leaving Ms. Bagley unconscious, the Justice Department said. Mr. Bernard set flame to the car.

Though the government executed Mr. Bernard and Mr. Vialva, Mr. Brown and another man involved in the crimes have been released from federal prison, and another accomplice is projected for release in 2030, according to a Bureau of Prisons database. Each of those three, ages 15 to 17 at the time of the crime, were ineligible for capital punishment under the Federal Death Penalty Act.

The Supreme Court later ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional for those under 18 at the time of their offense. Mr. Bernard’s supporters argued that the court failed to consider his youthfulness. Critics of the death penalty have said setting 18 as the age at which a defendant can be sentenced to death is arbitrary.

In a statement, two lawyers for Mr. Bernard maintained that their client did not kill anyone, and several jurors said they no longer stood by the initial verdict, along with an appellate prosecutor in his case who joined the call for his clemency.

“Brandon’s life mattered,” they said, describing his execution as “a stain on America’s criminal justice system.”

Despite claims from his defense that the government suppressed evidence that would have altered the calculus of Mr. Bernard’s sentence, courts rejected his pleas for a stay of execution. His lawyers criticized the government’s case and pointed to testimony that suggested Mr. Bernard held the lowest level of authority in the gang with which the government claimed he and other accomplices were affiliated.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that if the prosecution had not withheld the evidence and knowingly elicited false testimony as Mr. Bernard claimed, there is reasonable probability that he would not have been sentenced to death. She also contended that an appeals court that denied Mr. Bernard’s motion in a case related to the testimony “got it wrong,” and required too strict a standard that “perversely rewards the government for keeping exculpatory information secret.”

“Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court,” she wrote. “Now he never will.”

On Friday, the Justice Department intends to execute Alfred Bourgeois. Mr. Bourgeois, 56, was sentenced to death in 2004 for the murder of his daughter. The department said he abused, tortured and beat her to death. His execution was scheduled for January 2020, but the previous month, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court order that blocked the government from doing so.

As the government intends to proceed with the next four scheduled executions, the coronavirus continues to ravage the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, where the executions are scheduled to take place. The Bureau of Prisons reported that hundreds of inmates there have tested positive.

After Orlando Cordia Hall was put to death in November, members of the execution team tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a court filing in a lawsuit that seeks to delay the executions. In a declaration, Rick Winter, regional counsel for the Bureau of Prisons’ North Central Region, said five of those who tested positive intended to travel to Terre Haute for the December executions.