The surge in federal executions in the Trump Lame Duck period and the pandemic never seen before

Brandon Bernard was 18 when he was arrested as a partner for the abduction and murder of two youth ministers in a hidden section of the Fort Hood military reserve in Texas.

Thursday night, 40-year-old Bernard will be the youngest, based on the age of the crime, in nearly seven decades to be executed by the federal government.

Of the next five planned federal executions, four, including Bernard, involve black men; the fifth person, Lisa Montgomery, would be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.

As early as 2020, the federal government sentenced eight people to death, including the only Native Americans sentenced to federal death, whose execution in August was opposed by the Navajo nation.

Taken together, these cases reflect this year’s “awakening to the racial injustice that characterizes our criminal justice system,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the impartial Death Penalty Information Center.

“For years, the myth has stood that the federal criminal justice system was more advanced and fairer than the state court system and did not suffer the same legacy of racism and fanaticism,” Dunham said.

A report released by the Death Penalty Information Center in September examined the historical context of how the death penalty was a tool of authority over Black Americans. Since executions were reintroduced in the United States in 1977, nearly 300 black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a black victim, the report said.

Earlier this year, while the center notes that the majority of defendants executed by the federal government were white men, the victims of the cases were also white.

“These cases illustrate that even at the federal level, the lives of white victims still matter more than the lives of black victims,” ​​Dunham said, “and the color of defendants’ lives is less than anyone else’s.”

Executions continue

Under the Trump administration and the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General William Barr, executions were speeded up in July after a 17-year federal break – appeals due to a lack of priority from the previous administration, concerns about execution and protracted extensions.

Barr said in July that those sentenced to death are among the “most serious criminals.” The Ministry of Justice did not respond immediately to any further comments.

Since July, when Texas did so, no state has carried out executions.

Critics say it is unsafe to use the death penalty during an epidemic, especially when detainees, their families and legal representatives, as well as teams of federal execution specialists, have to travel to the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana, where executions are being held.

After a federal execution in November, eight members of a 40-member federal execution group later tested Covid-19 positively after returning home, according to a court statement issued this week by an official of the Federal Prison Penalty Office, which he filed for two lawsuits. Terra Haute prisoners who want to stop the executions.

The exact circumstances of the team members ’infection were not detailed, but five such individuals are expected to take part in the separate executions planned for the week, including Bernardon. A Justice Department attorney at a federal court hearing on Tuesday said that “even in November, it is difficult to formulate the assumptions that were contracted during the execution” and that the protocols for the upcoming executions are adequate.

The Execution Chamber at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, India, March 22, 1995.Chuck Robinson / AP file

But the number of people infected could potentially be higher because testing members of the execution team is not mandatory, said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the U.S. Civil Rights Association’s death penalty project.

“These executions were erroneous for a number of reasons related to the quality of counseling, as many of these prisoners had intellectual disabilities or racial evidence,” he said. “So what’s really breathtaking is that the government has caused so many diseases and allowed the risk of death to carry out these executions now when you don’t have to.”

Montgomery’s initial date of execution, who was convicted in 2007 of strangling an eight-month-old pregnant Missouri woman and strangling her unborn baby, was moved from December to January 12 after her lawyers caught Covid-19 and were unable to prepare her pardon. Application.

The last of the upcoming five executions is scheduled for January 15, five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has campaigned at federal level to pass legislation to abolish the death penalty. His helpers say he instead supports death row inmates who serve life sentences without probation and parole.

Barr told the Associated Press that he was likely to schedule more executions before leaving the Department of Justice. The DOJ modified its enforcement protocols last month, paving the way for other methods, such as troop and poison gas shooting, in addition to lethal injection. The rule will take effect on December 24.

Dunham said there is no parallel to the way the Trump administration is moving forward with “federal execution” in a lame-duck period.

“The sheer appetite for killing prisoners is unprecedented in modern American presidential history,” he added.


Angela Moore, a former federal prosecutor in the West District of Texas, stood in her bathroom in September and got ready for work when she was caught by a radio news: The federal government executed the black man, Christopher Vialva, and accused the Texas murder leader in which Bernard was involved as a criminal.

Moore was the prosecutor who argued against appealing Bernard’s death sentence. He thought about it over the years, he said, assuming the rest of his life would be sentenced to death because the United States had not executed anyone for nearly two decades. But hearing that Vialva had been killed, Bernard suffered the same fate.

Christopher Vialva at the Terre Haute Federal Prison Complex in India.Courtesy of Susan Otto / via AP

His name came from causes of death in cases like Bernard, which eventually questioned whether the death penalty was an effective deterrent to crime.

In these cases, he said, prosecutors are asking for a conviction, in part to get names for themselves and promote them as he asked; young black males are often classified as “dangerous” by jurors and are not considered by humanity; and juries must be confident that the criminal justice system and the courts are foolproof enough to catch the fault of the prosecution or defense.

“I no longer support the death penalty,” said Moore, who is white and now a private practice. “I felt I had to step up my responsibility. I saw that this man didn’t deserve death.”

Now speaking out against Bernard’s execution, he wrote an op in the Indianapolis Star in November stating that although Bernard was an adult in 1999, “an adult was unable to control his impulses, consider alternative courses of action, or predict the consequences of the action. Emerging scientific studies show that the brains of teenagers in the mid-20s are still developing and maturing.

Brandon Bernard was sentenced to death as an accomplice in the 1999 murder of a Texas couple.Help save Brandon

A jury of 11 white people and a black person found Bernard and Vialva guilty of the deaths of Todd and Stacie Bagley, married youth pastors who were white. Vialva was 19 at the time. The other three persons involved in the couple’s death were not legal adults and were not entitled to the death penalty, but pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison.

Prosecutors said the group had drawn up a plan to intimidate and rob the victim with a gun, and according to documents, they met with the Bagleys. Vialva was identified as the leader and gunman who fatally shot the couple in the head. Bernard was accused of buying the lighter and lighting the couple’s car in it, although the rest of the group testified that they had not seen him do it.

One of Bernard’s jurors, Gary McClung Jr., wrote to the Progressive American Constitution Society this week that he now regrets agreeing to the death penalty.

“During the trial, I felt like Mr. Bernard was a follower who had been forced by his friends to take part in a situation that led to the killings,” McClung said. “I wouldn’t have thought he would have been involved if he knew the victims would be killed, and I wouldn’t have thought anyone would have killed him personally.”

Bernard’s attorney, Rob Owen, said four other jurors also came forward to prove they no longer support the death penalty in the case. In addition, Owen said the federal government concealed certain evidence in the case that could have altered the outcome of Bernard’s verdict.

“Brandon should not be executed until the courts have fully addressed the constitutionality of his punishment,” Owen said in a statement Tuesday.

A Waco federal judge rejected a motion to suspend enforcement last week after federal prosecutors argued that 11 a.m. defense claims had previously been denied in court.

The Bagley family could not be reached immediately to comment. Todd Bagley’s mother had previously issued a statement after the execution of Vialva in which he expressed his gratitude that justice had been given to his son and wife.

“The story focused on Vialva’s life and the changes he made,” Georgia Bagley said. “It’s not about him and his changed life, but in this case about the victims … Please remember the victims and their families whose lives have been shattered and are still trying to cope.”

Kim Kardashian West, a reality television personality who fought criminal justice cases with the help of President Donald Trump, supported a campaign on Twitter calling for an end to Bernard’s execution.

Moore said he understands that victims and their loved ones have a right to retaliate and be locked up for horrific crimes. But society as a whole, he added, should not lose sight of the fact that Bernard has long been remorseful and has turned his life behind bars like a detained prisoner helping young people at risk.

“He spent his time in prison serving the community and somehow changed as a person, knowing he would be executed and that none of these good deeds would change for him,” Moore said.

“We have a bloodshed in this country,” she added, “and I don’t know where it comes from.”