Brandon Bernard is scheduled for execution in December, more than 20 years after crimes he committed as an 18 year old.
With all the chaos of 2020, not a lot of attention has been paid to the fact that the federal government has started executing prisoners.
At the state level, of course, the death penalty has never taken a break. Over 1,500 prisoners have been executed in the U.S. since the 1970s. But until 2020, only three prisoners had been executed by the federal government.
Under President George W. Bush, Timothy McVeigh, Juan Raul Garza, and Louis Jones Jr. were executed between 2001 and 2003. Then, for more than 17 years, the federal government got out of the execution business.
It was last summer that Attorney General William Barr announced the Trump administration's plan to resume federal executions, and since July of 2020, eight federal prisoners have been killed by lethal injection. With less than two months left until Joe Biden's inauguration, four more men and one woman are scheduled for execution, but Kim Kardashian West is hopeful that at least one of those death-row inmates can be saved.
What Did Brandon Bernard Do?
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In June of 1999, 18-year-old Brandon Bernard joined a carjacking and abduction that was already in progress. Todd and Stacie Bagley had stopped to use a payphone in Killeen, Texas when a group of teenagers, led by 19-year-old Christopher Vialva, held them at gunpoint and forced them into the trunk of their own car.
The group drove around for hours with the Bagleys reportedly calling out for help and pleading with their captors. It didn't work.
At some point Bernard joined the group, bringing along a gun that he reportedly thought was strictly for intimidation purposes. But when the group arrived in a remote area of the Fort Hood military base, Vialva used that gun to shoot Todd and Stacie Bagley in the head.
When Brandon Bernard set the vehicle on fire, with the Bagleys inside, he believed that the couple were already dead, but medical examiners would later conclude that Stacie Bagley had died of smoke inhalation.
The pillar of smoke was visible from miles away. When police arrive on the scene, they arrested Bernard, Vialva, and two others.
Three other defendants in the case were minors at the time and were given lengthy prison sentences. But Bernard and Vialva were tried together as adults and treated as equally involved in the Bagleys' murders.
There were a number of issues with how the case was handled. While Bernard is a Black man, 11 of the 12 jurors in his case were white. Bernard was appointed an attorney who had no experience with death penalty cases and who logged less than a quarter of the time such cases usually require.
Christopher Vialva's mother, Lisa Brown, speaking on his behalf ahead of his execution
In addition, multiple character witnesses were never called to testify on Bernard's behalf, and no case was made for the extenuating circumstances of his traumatic upbringing.
The prosecution, on the other hand, did not cut corners. Among others, they called on Richard Coons, a self-proclaimed expert on "future dangerousness," to testify that Bernard and Vialva were both too dangerous to be considered for lesser sentences.
Coons' approach to these cases would later be ruled unscientific and unreliable in a Texas court, but by that point he had already helped to secure death sentences for at least 25 defendants. At least 10 of those defendants — including Christopher Vialva — have since been executed.
Brandon Bernard is now 40 years old — a model prisoner, who expresses deep regret for the awful things he did as a teenager. Even if you generally support the death penalty — even if you agree with Vialva's execution — there are a lot of reasons not to agree with its use in his case.
So it's not particularly surprising that five of the jurors in his case and a prosecutor who fought to uphold his sentence have since come out to oppose his execution. And now Kim Kardashian has joined his cause.
Kim Kardashian and Criminal Justice
Over the weekend the 40-year-old reality star, mother of four, and wife of Kanye West shared her thoughts on the case via Twitter. With the hashtag #HelpSaveBrandon, she implored her 67 million followers to send a message to President Trump pleading for clemency on Brandon's behalf — before it's too late.
A terrible case has been brought to my attention and I need your help. Without it, on December 12th Brandon Bernar… https://t.co/wNmGIlkUgZ— Kim Kardashian West (@Kim Kardashian West)1606674276.0
While she's still primarily known for her reality TV stardom, Kim Kardashian is currently studying to be a lawyer and has proven to be a powerful advocate for criminal justice reform.
She has helped to secure reduced or commuted sentences for a number of prisoners who are now free and was intimately involved in the successful push for Texas Governor Greg Abbott to grant a stay of execution to death-row inmate Rodney Reed. But her most high-profile criminal justice work has involved dealing directly with soon-to-be-former-president Donald Trump.
In 2018 she was instrumental in persuading Donald Trump to pardon Alice Johnson. In March of 2020, Trump welcomed Kardashian and Johnson to the White House along with three other women whose sentences he commuted — thanks in part to Johnson's own advocacy.
Donald Trump clearly saw these moves as a source of good publicity and touted his record on criminal justice reform in an attempt to sway Black voters to his side during his failed reelection campaign. But now that he no longer has an electoral incentive to intervene in these issues, will he care what Kim Kardashian has to say?
Donald Trump's Mixed Record
Billing himself as "tough on crime" and "your president of law and order," Donald Trump has made no secret of his aggressive approach to criminal punishment. His administration has pushed for harsher sentencing — including suggestions of the death penalty for drug offenses — and has attempted to make the federal death penalty easier to carry out by expanding the available methods of execution.
President Trump recently commuted the sentences of Crystal Munoz, Judith Negron and Tynice Hall. Today they joined… https://t.co/AeUpvEziPG— Alice Marie Johnson (@Alice Marie Johnson)1583346051.0
Trump himself has even refused to take back calls to execute the so-called Central Park Five, who have long been exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. So what are the chances that he will care to step in on behalf of a man who has admitted his involvement is such grisly crimes?
How likely is Donald Trump — born into wealth, with a history of racial discrimination, and no apparent capacity for remorse — to sympathize with a Black man who had a difficult childhood and regrets what he did as a younger man? Now that he's no longer running for office, will he care to get involved? It may seem like slim odds, but it has to be worth trying.
Brandon Bernard is currently scheduled for federal execution on December 10th.
Lisa Montgomery — whose advocates argue was also denied a fair trial — is scheduled for execution on December 8th.