UPDATED: 9:45 p.m. ET, Dec. 10 —
Despite a series of 11th hour attempts and delays, Brandon Bernard was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 10 at the age of 40 at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana.
His lawyers exhausted all of their resources, leaving Bernard’s fate up to the Supreme Court, who denied a last minute request to stay the execution for 14 days. Bernard was put to death as the result of a 1999 trial where he was found guilty as an accomplice to murder, at the age of 18.
“Tonight, those of us 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. To us, his legal team; to his two beautiful and talented daughters; to his mother, brother, and sister; and to the countless people around the country who came to know him and his story in recent weeks,” a statement from his attorney Robert C. Owen read.
Bernard’s case was full of complexities that didn’t warrant an open and shut conviction. Five jurors who convicted Brandon advocated for clemency, including the initial prosecutor who argued against his case.
When Bernard was 18-years-old he was part of a group of Black teenagers ranging from ages 15-18 who staged a carjacking and robbery. The incident went horribly awry with the fateful shooting of white youth ministers Todd and Stacie Bagley at Fort Hood in Texas. Because the Bagleys were killed on the grounds of a military base, the case was considered a federal crime.
However, Bernard was not present at the time of the carjacking and did not pull the trigger which resulted in the couple’s death. Brandon was found guilty of lighting the Bagley’s car on fire, and for the murder of Stacie Bagley, who without Brandon’s knowledge died from smoke inhalation, not the gunshot wound she sustained. His lawyers argue he was intimidated to do so at gunpoint by Christopher Vialva, Bernard’s co-defendant who was found guilty of murder. Vialva was the first Black federal inmate put to death in September after the Trump administration resumed federal executions in 2020 following a 17-year hiatus.
The three other participants who played a larger role in the crime received prison sentences ranging from 20 to 35 years. Two have already been released from custody, while the last is scheduled for release in about 10 years.
A website created by Bernard’s attorneys included important details regarding his fight for clemency.
Bernard’s attorneys argued that his first attorneys were court-appointed and withheld pertinent information from the jury, like Bernard’s complicated and sometimes abusive home life. They also declined to make an opening statement which would have laid out the important facts mentioned above.
“Black teens like Brandon are systematically denied the ‘benefit’ of their youth, which is outweighed by their race in the eyes of police, prosecutors, judges and jurors,” wrote prosecutor Angela Moore, who defended Bernard’s death verdict on appeal.
Bernard was hailed as a loving father, son and client, who made significant development strides and expressed remorse for what he surely deems the worst day of his life. He acknowledged his participation warranted consequence and advocated for life in prison without the possibility of parole or a reduced sentence.