Posted on December 11, 2020

Spree of Federal Executions During Trump’s Lame-Duck Period and Pandemic Is Unprecedented

Erik Ortiz, NBC News, December 9, 2020

Brandon Bernard was 18 when he was arrested as an accomplice in the 1999 kidnapping and murder of two youth ministers on a secluded stretch of the Fort Hood military reservation in Texas.

On Thursday evening, Bernard, now 40, is set to become the youngest person, based on the age when the crime occurred, in nearly seven decades to be executed by the federal government.

Of the next five scheduled federal executions, four of them, including Bernard’s, involve Black men; the fifth person, Lisa Montgomery, would be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.

Already in 2020, the federal government has put eight people to death, including the only Native American on federal death row, whose execution in August was opposed by his tribe, the Navajo Nation.


A Death Penalty Information Center report released in September examined the historical context of how capital punishment has been a tool for 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 white men made up the majority of the defendants who were executed by the federal government, the victims in those cases were also white.


The Trump administration and the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr ramped up executions in July after a 17-year hiatus on the federal level — a combination of the lack of priority under previous administrations, concerns over botched executions and the delays caused by extended appeals.

Barr in July said the those slated for death were among “the worst criminals.” The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

No state has carried out executions since July, when Texas did so.

Critics argue that employing death sentences during a pandemic is unsafe, particularly when it requires inmates, their families and legal representatives, and teams of federal execution specialists to travel to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where executions are held.


The last of the upcoming five executions is scheduled for Jan. 15, five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who campaigned on passing legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. Instead, his aides say, he supports death row inmates serving life sentences without probation or parole.

Barr told The Associated Press he’s likely to schedule more executions before he leaves the Justice Department. The Justice Department last month amended its execution protocols, paving the way for other methods, such as firing squads and poison gas, in addition to lethal injection. The rule goes into effect Dec. 24.


Angela Moore, a former federal prosecutor for the Western District of Texas, was standing in her bathroom in September getting ready for work when a news report on the radio caught her off guard: The federal government had executed Christopher Vialva, a Black man and the accused ringleader in the Texas murder that involved Bernard as an accomplice.

Moore was the prosecutor who had argued against Bernard’s appeal of his death verdict. {snip}


She’s now speaking out against Bernard’s execution, writing an op-ed in The Indianapolis Star in November that although Bernard was an adult in 1999, he “lacked an adult’s capacity to control his impulses, consider alternative courses of action or anticipate the consequences of his behavior.” Emerging scientific studies indicate that teenagers’ brains are still developing and maturing through their mid-20s.

A jury of 11 white people and one Black person found Bernard and Vialva guilty in the deaths of Todd and Stacie Bagley, married youth pastors who were white. Vialva was 19 at the time. Three others involved in the couple’s deaths were not legal adults and ineligible for the death penalty, but pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison.

Prosecutors said the group devised a plan to intimidate and rob a victim with a gun, and they had come across the Bagleys, according to documents. Vialva was identified as the leader and gunman who fatally shot the couple in their heads. Bernard was accused of buying the lighter fluid and setting the couple’s car on fire with them in it, although the other members of the group testified they hadn’t seen him do it.


{snip} Todd Bagley’s mother previously released a statement after Vialva’s execution expressing gratitude that justice was served for her son and his wife.

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

Reality television personality Kim Kardashian West, who has championed criminal justice cases by soliciting the help of President Donald Trump, tweeted her support of a campaign asking him to stop Bernard’s execution.