The Trump administration, in its final few weeks, is moving forward with plans to execute five federal prisoners before the end of its term and all but one is Black and male. Advocates, however, are attempting to halt the next execution, which would be the ninth this year and set to be Brandon Bernard, who was sentenced to death for the double murder of two people in Texas in 1999.
Bernard, 40, is scheduled to die at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., on Thursday (Dec. 10) night for the killing of two youth ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley. The white Iowa couple had stopped at a convenience store to use a payphone in Killeen, Tex., after visiting friends and attending a church meeting. Bernard, who was 18 at the time and his co-defendant Christopher Vialva, who was 19, planned to rob them, prosecutors argued. The couple offered to give Bernard and Vialva a ride but instead they held the couple at gunpoint and put them in the trunk of their vehicle, CBS News reported.
The assailants had hatched a plan to accost an unwitting victim by asking them for a ride, then robbing them. On June 21, 1999, they drove around Killeen looking for victims and spotted the Bagleys using the pay phone at Fort Hood, which sits adjacent to the town.
Court records show when the vehicle got to Fort Hood, Vialva shot both victims in the head and Bernard set their vehicle on fire. Because the killings took place on military grounds, it became a federal case. Prosecutors said that Stacie Bagley was still alive when the car was ignited and died from smoke inhalation, prompting them to ask for the death penalty for Bernard.
Vialva was executed by lethal injection Sept. 24 at Terre Haute. He was the first Black inmate to be executed since the Trump administration resumed executions in July after a 20-year hiatus.
Three other accomplices, who are said to have been involved, were also sentenced, the Temple Daily Telegram reported in 2001. Terry Brown and Christopher Lewis, both 15 at the time, pled guilty and testified on behalf of prosecutors. They have since been released from federal prison. Tony Sparks, who was 16, also pled guilty and is set to be released in 2030.
In Bernard’s case, however, a request for a stay of execution filed in November 2020 indicated the government withheld evidence at the jury sentencing that could have changed its outcome. According to the criminal complaint, Bernard was not the ring leader in the plot to rob the Bagleys; Vialva and two accomplices were the culprits. Bernard was only recruited to assist them, the complaint says. "Expert evidence that Bernard occupied the gang's lowest rung would almost certainly have persuaded at least one juror to vote for life," according to CBS News.
Because of this new detail, five of the nine surviving jurors in the case have said they would have voted for life in prison for Bernard, rather than the death penalty. "The death penalty is far too harsh for his level of involvement in this crime," Gary McClung, one of the jurors, said.
Even the prosecutor in the case, Angela Moore, who once defeated an appeal from Bernard, now agrees that the death penalty is too harsh a punishment in this case. "Mr. Bernard did not shoot and kill the victims in this case," Moore told CBS News. "He was not the person who planned this robbery gone wrong."
Bernard’s case has attracted the attention of celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, who has played a role convincing President Trump in the past to grant clemency and pardons to others like Alice Marie Johnson and Angela Stanton . Kardashian West again urged leniency for Bernard and asked for his sentence to be commuted on Wednesday (Dec. 9).
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An additional Change.org petition has circulated asking for support to stop the execution and has gained more than 380,000 signers.
So far, courts have not been convinced to change Bernard’s sentence, despite his lawyers' claims that the government had suppressed evidence. A Texas District Court court denied his attempt at a reprieve in September 2020, furthering the push for his execution in a Trump administration push for several executions to take place before he leaves office. If they are all carried out, 13 of 54 people on federal death row will have been put to death, according to CBS News.
Bernard’s defense lawyers made a last ditch effort on Wednesday to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay while they pursued a further appeal. Meanwhile, advocates hold out hope that the efforts to prevent Bernard’s death will be successful.
"There is always room for mercy and for the president to have a change of heart," said Abraham Bonowitz, director at the nonprofit Death Penalty Action told CBS News.
Photo Credit: Stacey Brownstein/Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Washington via AP