The Senseless Killing of Brandon Bernard

Trump’s decision to go ahead with his execution feels like cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

Photo: Death Penalty Information Center
Photo: Death Penalty Information Center
Photo: Death Penalty Information Center

Brandon Bernard was declared dead at 9:27 p.m. last night. He was killed just as planned, despite a national outcry to spare his life, making him the ninth person since July to be executed by the Trump administration. Before then, the federal government had not killed a person incarcerated on death row in 17 years, but Donald Trump has rushed ahead in an unprecedented, ghastly spree: He has four more executions planned before Joe Biden takes office. Bernard was 40 years old.

Bernard was 18 when he was convicted in 1999 of the murder of Stacie and Todd Bagley, two youth ministers in Killeen, Texas. He was one of a group of five young men who car-jacked the Bagleys and drove around with them in the trunk before shooting the couple in the head and burning the car. The man who shot them, Christopher Vialva, was executed in September. Bernard set the fire. His lawyers argued that the prosecution withheld evidence that diminished his role in the crime; he was not a leader, they say, and had set the fire under fear for his life. Five of the sentencing jurors said they would not have sent Bernard to death had they known.

Bernard was barely a legal adult at the time of his crime. The federal government hasn’t executed someone who committed a crime when they were that young in 70 years. In his life in incarceration, sentenced to death, Bernard lived a model life of reform. He became a friend to other men in his same circumstance. He was one of the “go-to guys for help in here,” one of them said. In his clemency petition, Bernard’s lawyers said he took part in religious activities and outreach to young people. Even the prosecutor in his case supported a commutation of his sentence because of his “remarkable” record. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court of the United States was unmoved.

People on death row are confined in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, in what’s called a “special confinement unit.” They are kept alone in cells for 23 hours a day. Bernard was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day for 17 years. Visits with his two daughters, his mother, brother, and sister took place through a pane of glass. It has been reported had been listening to classical music and that he had taken up crocheting. He was making sweater patterns and sharing them with others in a crocheting group; his cell was filled with yarn.

In the last few days of Bernard’s life, high-profile lawyers close to the Trump administration, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, joined his defense team. Celebrities and hundreds of thousands of regular people protested his case online. The Supreme Court was asked to stay the execution; Bernard’s supporters inundated Donald Trump with appeals to intervene. None of it mattered. On Thursday evening, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to proceed with the execution. The Trump White House made no statement regarding Bernard. At 9:07 p.m., prison officials began the process of killing him.

A local reporter described how Bernard lay on a green gurney in the middle of the “media room,” where executions take place behind glass. Kim Kardashian, who had advocated for Bernard’s release and was in contact with him, tweeted that Bernard told her in their last conversations that he was claustrophobic and that he was worried he might need to take a sedative before dying. “He just didn’t want to panic,” she wrote. Bernard’s voice was calm and clear, according to witnesses, as he addressed the family of the Bagleys, who were present, from the gurney, lifting his head. “I’m sorry are the only words I can say that capture how I feel now and how I felt that day,” he said. Bernard’s own family was not allowed to watch him die. At 9:11 p.m., the lethal injection process began. At some point after that, Bernard asked if it had started yet. At 9:15, his body began shaking and his mouth opened wide. At 9:27, he was declared dead. That’s 12 minutes later.

The tangled chain of legal appeals and filings that lead up to this moment — the overwhelming flood of grief and rage, a country’s worth of umbrage and objection, thousands of desperate, unheard pleas — rubs up against the brutal simplicity of the act itself. The government killed him; they did not have to kill him. How can it be? How can the state be so cruel and so profoundly senseless? In one of his last letters to the journalist Lilliana Segura, Bernard wrote, “It just feels like you are fighting against an opponent that doesn’t have to play by any of the rules.” There is no sense. Only law.

The Bagleys released a statement that said they forgave Bernard after listening to him say he was sorry, strapped onto the green gurney, and that they hoped he, having accepted Christ, would find heaven. They thanked Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr for the closure they received. The next execution is scheduled for today.

Brandon Bernard was claustrophobic, locked in a room by himself for 23 hours a day for 17 years, with just a sliver of sky, and by the end he was making sweaters. Which isn’t to say that, had he become angry, or mean, or been been driven out of his mind, he should have been put to death. Bernard seems to have been an extraordinary person; after he was killed, his lawyers said he hoped even in death he might help move us closer to a future when our country will not “pointlessly and maliciously” kill its own citizens.

I am struck by the ordinary peace of crocheting. Maybe he found rhythm in the repetitive movement of his hands, like meditation. At the end, you get a sweater. The human soul and body is so remarkable that even in torture, in isolation so severe it’s designed to cut off the heart from love like oxygen from the brain, Bernard got a hobby.

This piece has been edited to use preferred terminology.

The Senseless Killing of Brandon Bernard