Brandon Bernard was executed by the federal government Thursday night, despite the pleas of Kim Kardashian and other anti-death penalty advocates who had cited possible prosecutorial misconduct and Bernard’s young age at the time as reasons to oppose the execution.
Bernard, 40, had been one of five gang members convicted of murdering youth ministers Todd and Stacie Bagley in 1999 after the couple had agreed to give the group a ride, according to a statement from the United States Department of Justice.
"I'm sorry ... I wish I could take it all back, but I can't," Bernard said to the Bagley family in his last words according to CNN. “That's the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day."
Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. He had been just 18 years old at the time of the crime, making him the youngest person in the United States based on his age at the time to receive the death penalty in nearly 70 years.
The United States Supreme Court denied a last-minute request for an emergency stay of execution Thursday night, with three Justices including Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer casting dissenting votes, The New York Daily News reports.
Bernard’s case has sparked national attention from anti-death penalty advocates—including reality star and social justice advocate Kim Kardashian West—as the execution date loomed.
Kardashian West urged President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison, arguing in a series of tweets that the unique circumstances of his case did not justify the death penalty.
Among the arguments supporting clemency, Kardashian West argued that Bernard had not been the actual shooter in the crime, was just 18 years old when the couple was killed and had used his time behind bars for good, helping at risk youth.
“I stand by what I have always said, I can empathize and feel pain for the victims and their families,” she wrote just hours before the execution. “Killing Brandon will not bring them back and I believe in my heart of hearts killing him isn’t right. What Brandon did was wrong, but killing him won’t make things right.”
Kardashian West also referenced claims made to a federal appeals court Wednesday by Bernard’s attorneys. His legal team had argued that prosecutors unconstitutionally withheld evidence during his trial that may have given him a life sentence rather than the death penalty, NBC News reports.
Bernard’s attorneys said five of the jurors in the case have now come forward to say they do not support the death penalty in the case any longer.
"Given that five jurors no longer stand by their death verdict, Brandon must not be executed until the courts have fully addressed the constitutionality of his sentence," lawyer Robert C. Owen said.
Chris Vialva, who shot the Bagleys and had been the ringleader, was executed in September. Other members of the gang who had been with the group that night received lesser sentences, according to CNN.
Federal prosecutors said after accepting the ride from the Bagleys, the group forced the couple into the trunk of their car, drove around for hours while attempting to steal their money. Vialva eventually shot both in the head, killing Todd instantly. But a subsequent autopsy showed Stacie had survived the initial gunshot wound. After the shooting, Bernard lit the car on fire, and Stacie died of smoke inhalation, the Department of Justice said.
Late on Thursday, attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr—who defended President Trump during his impeachment hearings earlier this year—also joined Bernard’s legal team requesting the Supreme Court delay the execution for several weeks so that they were able to get up to speed on the case.
After the execution was carried out Thursday night, Owen called it a “stain on the America’s criminal justice system.”
“Brandon made one terrible mistake at age 18,” Owen said. “But he did not kill anyone, and he never stopped feeling shame and profound remorse for his actions in the crime that took the lives of Todd and Stacie Bagley. And he spent the rest of his life sincerely trying to show, as he put it, that he ‘was not that person.’”
However, the Bagleys’ family members had supported the execution and thanked the Trump administration for carrying out the death penalty.
Trump had reportedly been aware of the case, but declined to intervene in the final hours.
“It has been very difficult to wait 21 years for the sentence that was imposed by the judge and jury on those who cruelly participated in the destruction of our children, to be finally completed,” Todd’s mother Georgia A. Bagley wrote in a statement, according to CNN. “This senseless act of unnecessary evil was premeditated and had many opportunities to be stopped at any time during a 9-hour period. This was torture, as they pleaded for their lives from the trunk of their own car.”
Shortly after the execution, Georgia Bagley told the media that she had found solace in apologies made by both Bernard and Vialva before they died.
“The apology and remorse…helped very much heal my heart,” she said. “I can very much say: 'I forgive them.'”
Charles Woodard, who wrote a statement on behalf of the family, also spoke of forgiveness.
“I pray that Brandon has accepted Christ as his Savior, because if he has, Todd and Stacie will welcome him into Heaven with love and forgiveness,” he wrote.
Bernard was the ninth federal inmate to die in an execution this year after Attorney General William Barr announced the federal government would resume executions after a 17-year hiatus.
The Trump administration continues to move forward with executions during his lame-duck period despite concerns about COVID-19 and the possible spread of the disease. During an execution, as many as 125 people, including 40 out-of-state Bureau of Prisons employees, typically enter the prison facility as part of an execution, CNN reports.
“The decision to move forward with all these super spreader events in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed a quarter of a million Americans is historically unprecedented,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the news outlet in an earlier interview.
Although Bernard’s attempts to delay the execution were unsuccessful, Kardashian West—who spoke to Bernard shortly before the execution—said the public support he received in the case gave his family validation that he had grown from his mistake.
“His main message that he learned in his life was not to hang out with the wrong crowd,” she wrote on Twitter. “That was so important to him that he shared that with the youth. It got him caught up and he made poor choices.”
Kardashian West serves as host of Oxygen’s “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project,” which highlights her criminal justice advocacy efforts. As part of her work, Kardashian West has advocated for clemency and helped secure the release of Alice Johnson, a grandmother serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense. She also advocated for the release of sex-trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown, who killed a man when she was a teenager.
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