A U.S federal judge has refused to halt the execution of Brandon Bernard, who is charged with double murder and robbery in Texas. The 40-year-old is an inmate at the U.S Penitentiary in Terre Haute.
Bernard is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Indiana on Thursday. Should the execution take place, he is going to become the ninth federal prisoner to be executed after the Trump administration restored the federal execution law in early 2020, after it was dormant for 17 years.
Bernard’s lawyers have repeatedly argued that a crucial witness was not called to the stand during the prosecution on his trial. The said witness can attest that Bernard was not in any leading position in the local gang, in fact, he was at the very bottom of the hierarchy. The federal judge, James Sweeney in his order on Tuesday, disregarded the lawyer’s appeals and arguments, stating that the expert witness’s statement was not strong enough to convince the jurors to halt the execution.
According to court documents, the brutal murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley took place on the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas in the year 1999. The autopsy report of the victims shows that Todd Bagley was killed by a gunshot, while Stacie Bagley died because of smoke inhalation.
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Bernard, who was 18 at the time, was not the one who orchestrated the robbery, it was Christopher Vialva, who has been executed earlier this year by lethal injection.
The court documents reveal what exactly happened that night and how did a robbery lead to murders.
The five people involved in the robbery and murder, including Bernard, belonged to the 212 Piru Bloods gang. And here’s what happened that night:
Todd Bagley, a veteran who had served at the Fort Hood army base, was in town with his wife, Stacie. The couple had planned to visit their friends and go to a church they used to attend previously. Todd was out using a payphone when two young men approached him; one of them was Vialva and asked for a ride to their uncle’s house. Agreeing to help them out, Todd let them in his car. This is when Vialva and the other guy pulled out their guns and pointed them at Todd and Stacie. According to the court documents, Vialva told the victims, ‘The plans have changed.’
The two robbers proceeded to steal the couple’s wallets, jewelry, and purse, then ordered them to get into the car’s trunk. They later drove around and used the victims’ debit cards to empty their ATMs. It’s not clear when, but Vialva decided at some point that the couple had to die. The two men met up with another man and Bernard, who had bought lighter fluid, and together they drove the car to a remote area. Vialva shot the Bagleys while Bernard poured the fluid all over the car. He later torched the vehicle, killing both Todd and Stacie.
Convicted of double murder and robbery, both Vialva and Bernard were sentenced to death. While Vialva was executed on September 24, Bernard’s lawyers are still fighting to get him off the death row somehow.
Brandon Bernard’s case
A lawyer was appointed to Bernard by the court, who had no experience of federal death penalty cases. The attorney repeatedly made mistakes that made the jurors see Bernard as an equal to Vialva. One of the gravest mistakes he made was to offer no opening statement at trial along with not trying to sever their client from Viala, the leader of the robbery and murder.
Robert Owen, Bernard’s current lawyer, has filed a case at the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, to request President Donald Trump to change Bernard’s death sentence to life in prison.
He has made this appeal on the basis of four arguments: The first one is that the original plan was for Bernard to be the getaway driver and nothing else. The second argument is based on Bernard’s good conduct in prison for the past 20 years, based on a statement from the former warden from the federal Bureau of Prison. The third point presented by Owen is that five out of nine jurors that gave Bernard the sentence have since changed their minds.
They’ve come forward saying they regret their previous verdicts. Lastly, Owen has requested to halt the execution for Brandon Bernard on the basis that the prosecution withheld a key witness as they would have testified to Bernard having no real leadership in the gang.
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Sweeney has disregarded the appeal stating that the evidence doesn’t counter the facts of the case.
Social media campaign to stop the execution of Brandon Bernard
At trial Brandon’s attorney fell short by not hiring any experts who could have explained to the jury why Brandon decided to leave the video game store that night or how he had grown up in an abusive home,
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 29, 2020
Bernard’s lawyers started a social media campaign to stop his execution. A petition has been circulating on Twitter and other platforms to save Brandon Bernard. It has caught the attention of many celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West, who is studying law herself.
Kim took to Twitter to post the link to the petition, urging her 67 million followers to sign it. She included details of the petition that requests for Bernard to spend the rest of his life in prison instead of receiving the death penalty. The signatories are required to fill in their details in the form if they wish to support the campaign and ask President Donald Trump for clemency.
In her tweet, Kim said, “While Brandon did participate in this crime, his role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved, two of whom are home from prison now.”
“Although all five teens were black, 11 of the 12 jurors were white. This, coupled with the misleading and incomplete information the jury was given, deprived the boys of a fair trial. Instead of being executed, Brandon could live out his sentence in prison.”
Even after a successful social media campaign, no action has been taken to change the death sentence to life in prison.
What’s the real story behind the refusal?
What nobody can fully understand at this moment is why President Donald Trump feels like speeding up the executions of prisoners when his administration is winding up. There are five executions lined up, starting with Bernard’s on Thursday. This is taking place only a few days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden’s administration on January 20.
If the executions take place as planned, it’ll be 13 executions since July. According to Attorney General William Barr, Trump is expected to carry out more death penalties before he departs for good. It’s hard to understand Trump’s reasoning behind his decision after more than half of the American public has elected a President who opposes the death penalty.
One thing that’s striking and worrying at the moment is that four out of five people scheduled to be executed are Black. The fifth person is a White female, Lisa Montgomery charged with murdering a pregnant woman and cutting out her baby alive.
The execution method used thus far has been lethal injection; however, the Justice Department has updated protocols to allow execution by poison gas and firing squad, which seem a lot more aggressive and visual.