Brandon Bernard with his family. (Image courtesy of @KimKardashian on Twitter)
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: The death penalty and the United States’ reluctance for clemency

“I’m sorry. That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day,” Brandon said, according to the Associated Press. 

On December 10, Brandon Bernard was lethally executed for a double murder-robbery he was a part of in 1999 at the age of 18. His execution at the age of 40 makes him the youngest person to be executed in almost 70 years.

During his final days, his defense team pleaded Donald Trump for clemency and filed a formal plea to the Supreme Court to delay his execution. The Supreme Court denied the plea and the president did not act.

Since 1976, 1,527 people have been executed and 85 have occurred under Trump’s administration. Despite hundreds of thousands of letters sent to Donald Trump, and voicemails left to the Department of Justice, they did not seem to make a lasting impression. 

At the age of 18, Brandon Bernard was an accomplice in the murders of Stacie and Todd Bagley in June 1999. However, he did not act alone as he was one of five teenagers that robbed the couple and shot them as Christopher Vialva insisted they needed to kill the Bagley’s.

Afterward, Bernard set the car in flames with lighter fluid. Per an independent investigator hired by his defense team, “Stacie had been ‘medically dead’ before the fire.” Though his lawyers have proclaimed that Bernard was fearful of the consequences if he had not listened to Vialva, who was also executed back in September for shooting the Bagley’s.

His lawyers have stood by their stance and have said Bernard was not guilty of the killing of anyone. Currently, five of his nine previous jurors now believe he is innocent. With the presentation of new information, jurors from 20 years ago have changed their positions and preferred Bernard be taken off Death Row or be sentenced to Life without Parole. Clips and declarations from the majority of jurors can be found here.

During his time in prison, a former warden at Terre Haute, Mark Bezy, expressed only positive remarks about Bernard.

“He would function exceptionally well in a less-restrictive environment without posing any risk to institutional security and good order,” he said.

In addition to positive behavior, he had counseled others to promote a bright future and deter them from following in his footsteps.

In a recent opinion editorial, former prosecutor Angela Moore also changed her stance and advocated to spare Bernard’s life. In her editorial, she expresses regret for helping put him on death row and said: “I always took pride in representing the United States as a federal prosecutor, and I think executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor.”

“I have never been able to hug my dad, but mentally and emotionally he is there for me as much as possible. It might not seem like much of a relationship, but it is the best one I have…” Bernard’s daughter, Taneah Scott, said in a plea letter to the president.

(Image courtesy of @/KimKardashian on Twitter)

As of now, five more executions are scheduled to take place before Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. Many find it quite peculiar that they have been lined up right before Biden takes his place as president, seeing as he is opposed to the death penalty.

According to Joe Biden’s website, he will work to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, as well as incentivize states to “follow the federal government’s example.” 

In response to criticisms at Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department has said he’s simply carrying out the law, according to the Washington Post. Although, last year Barr announced the renewed continuation of lethal injections that hadn’t been carried out since 2003, because of wide opposition from pharmaceutical firms. In July, three executions were carried out in 4 days, matching the amount the Justice Department has overseen in three decades.

As of 2020, more than 70% of the world has abolished the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and it’s time for the United States to follow suit. There is no doubt that the death penalty is not a variegated jumble of racism and reform movements.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois argued the death penalty in the United States is “fatally flawed in its imposition and is disproportionately imposed based on race.”

This past summer, Americans led seas of protests and were hungry for anti-racism change. During this time, all of the people executed were white men in an attempt to avoid criticism. After this summer, 4 of the 5 people on trial are Black men, according to the BBC.

“One of the most robust findings of study after study, in jurisdictions across the country, is that the race of your victim is a serious factor in determining whether or not you will have the death penalty,” Ngozi Nudulue, the director of research at the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center, argued.

In a previous statement in July, Barr said those put on death row were “among the worst criminals.” But this could not be farther from the truth. Death row is responsible for various innocent deaths as it holds people with unjust court cases, victims of racism, and those suffering from mental impairments.

Take into account George Stinney Jr. for instance. He was 14 years old when he was sentenced to the electric chair for being accused of killing Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames, two young white girls. His jury was composed of all white men that came to a guilty verdict in 10 minutes. Until the day he was executed, he carried a Bible in his hands. 70 years later, he was proven innocent and it was deemed impossible for him to have killed the girls.

After the blatant hate crime of Ahmaud Arbery’s death this past Spring, it proved as another excellent example of the racist errors in the justice system. Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, were two white men that weren’t charged with aggravated assault or murder until months after the crime although the crime was captured on video.

Additionally, the fundamentals of the death penalty fall short of the values of our American democracy. The death penalty leaves no room for grace and much less space for rehabilitation. If there is no opportunity to rehabilitate, then there should be no belief that this inhumane system will eradicate societal change and fix wrongdoings.

As a nation that prides itself on opportunity, freedom and second chances, death row is a large flaw that impinges itself against our very own fundamental beliefs.