Execution of Brandon Bernard Sparks Debate on Death Penalty

Execution of Brandon Bernard Sparks Debate on Death Penalty

Kayla Cheng, Staff Writer

On December 10th, Brandon Bernard was executed by the US Justice Department through lethal injection. Bernard spent 22 years on death row for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery in which he burned the bodies of Stacie and Todd Bagley after taking part in their murder in the couple’s own car to dispose of criminal evidence. Weeks before his execution was carried out, his story caused an uproar in the media, spurring some 950,000 people to sign petitions in hopes of saving his life. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected petitions against Bernard’s execution and carried out his death sentence. Despite the SCOTUS’ response, Bernard’s case sparked a wave of people considering the impact of the death penalty and if the U.S. should continue with this form of punishment. 

Bernard was a legal adult at the time of the murder-robbery, which made him eligible for the federal death penalty, unlike several of his accomplices who were then considered minors and sentenced to a few years in prison despite having an equally prominent roles in the crimes. Originally, Bernard was convicted on the basis that the fire he started was Stacie Bagley’s cause of death. However, recent investigation revealed that the cause of Bagley’s death was the gunshot wound made by Christopher Andre Vialva, the leader of Bernard’s gang. Unsurprisingly, Bernard’s attorney, Robert Owens, was infuriated when he heard about the newly discovered evidence that had not been presented at Bernard’s trial back in 2000. Owens sought to have a hearing after learning that the trial prosecutors at the time withheld evidence that would have diminished Bernard’s role in the crimes. In response, prosecutors argued with documents opposing Bernard’s appellate motion because “the jury heard ample evidence indicating that Bernard did not have a leadership role in the gang — and was not even a full-fledged member.”

In recent news, Owens claimed that the “procedural barriers have prevented [Bernard] from obtaining a hearing on the merits of his claim… By denying a stay of execution to Brandon Bernard, the court will allow the government to evade responsibility for hiding critical evidence that would have changed the outcome of Brandon’s sentencing.” What was even more appalling to the public was that five of the original sentencing jurors came forward stating that if they were aware of this undisclosed information, they would not have chosen to punish Bernard through the death penalty. Even Bernard’s own prosecutor has spoken out that he did not wish for Bernard to be put to death.

Furthermore, many who spoke out about this case believe that racial injustice was prominent in the judgment of Bernard’s fate. Racism has long been a factor in determining many criminal’s fates due to a long history of discrimination and brainwashing generations into believing that the color of one’s skin can justify patronizing or dehumanizing acts. Bernard had an almost all-white jury, and considering that he, a black man, killed a white couple in Texas, the public heavily debated the possibility of Bernard’s fate being influenced by the color of his skin. 

What is frustrating is that the prosecutor at the time used a misinformed professional, who stated that Bernard would be a future danger to society. However, more than 20 years later, we know that this is not the case. During his imprisonment, Bernard has neither been written up, nor has he stirred up any trouble. The prosecutor stated that Bernard was the mastermind behind the murder and that he was the one who directly killed, but in fact he was merely a lowly gang member and the fire he lit was not the cause of death for the Bagley couple.

Though there is a lot of controversy regarding Bernard’s execution, his case has once again put the death penalty up for debate.